By Ashley Denny.
COLUMBIA, SC- Well this is the game that we’ve all been waiting for all season, the Clemson vs. Carolina game which to most is the most important game of the Tigers’ season. At the beginning of this season, Clemson’s defense thought that they’d be going up against 5th year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia and Heisman candidate running back Marcus Lattimore, however the Gamecocks have been plagued with injuries so far this season including a knee injury to Lattimore that required surgery. As for Garcia, he was asked to leave the team due to violating team rules and so now the Tigers’ are set to go up against Connor Shaw, a first year starter for the Gamecocks who has found a way to win.
Clemson lead the Gamecocks in this series however South Carolina has beaten Clemson the past two years.
“This is a big challenge for us,” Clemson’s head coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. “Especially going on the road to Columbia, but we’re very excited to have the opportunity to hopefully go play better. We didn’t play well this past weekend and it’s going to take a much, much better performance on our part to even have a chance to win this game.”
The Tigers’ started off the season 8-0 however a loss to Georgia Tech and a humiliating loss to NC State have kept the Tigers’ from getting their 10th win of the season. Although the Tigers may have looked a little lackluster against NC State last weekend, you can bet that they’ll be fired up and ready to play for the State Championship, which is one of the main goals set every year by Coach Swinney.
USC on Offense-
Offensively, the Gamecocks are led by Shaw, a young quarterback who like Clemson’s Tajh Boyd has been able to make a somewhat seamless transition from backup quarterback to starter when Garcia was kicked off the team. Although Shaw doesn’t have his main offensive weapon in running back Marcus Lattimore, he’s been able to make due by spreading the ball around to receivers like Alshon Jeffery, who after a stellar 2010 season has been somewhat quiet for the Gamecocks in 2011.
At running back, the Gamecocks will look to Brandon Wilds, who had to step up when Lattimore was injured earlier this season. Already Wilds has shown that he can play with the best of them as he’s been a very effective runner for Carolina thus far.
“Their quarterback Connor Shaw continues to gain confidence and is getting better every week,” Swinney said. “Alshon Jeffery is a great player; we’ve got to know where he is at all times, along with Ace Sanders, Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd. Brandon Wilds is a good runner and continues to improve every week.”
“They’re a zone-read team, they run the ball from 100 different formations,” Swinney said. “They make you play disciplined football. Connor Shaw has been a real weapon for them running the football, that’s who they are. We have to be very disciplined in how we defend it. At the end of the day, you have to tackle the back and defend the quarterback. Sometimes they’ll run a quarterback sweep and get five yards; they’re patient in operating their offense and it’s working.”
Clemson on Defense- The Tigers laid an egg against NC State last weekend in a 37-13 loss to the Wolf Pack, however Clemson’s defense played the best first quarter of football they’ve played since beating Virginia Tech 23-3 earlier this season. Although Clemson’s defense has been inconsistent at times this season, last weekend’s loss was mainly due to the multiple turnovers given up by the Tigers’ offense and the impeccable field position given to the Wolf Pack off of these turnovers. Clemson’s Andre Branch continues to lead the league in sacks however the rest of Clemson’s defense will have to be on their A game if they want to compete with the 12th ranked Gamecocks.
Throughout this season, although the Tigers’ have found ways to win 9 games, it’s been made crystal clear that Clemson’s defense has trouble defending a running quarterback, which is Connor Shaw’s best attribute. So in order for the Tigers’ to compete in this weekend’s showdown Clemson’s defense will have to play their most disciplined game of football to date.
Advantages for South Carolina-
The main advantage for the Gamecocks is that they’re playing on their home turf, something that always seems to be a factor in rivalry games like this one. Carolina’s fans are rowdy and loud, and have a hatred for everything Clemson so therefore the Tigers’ will have to come out and score early in order to quiet Williams Bryce Stadium down.
Both of the Tigers’ losses this season have come on the road, showing that it’s taken Clemson longer to get settled into the game in an opponent’s house than in Death Valley. If the Tigers get behind early in this game, it may be difficult for them to bounce back like they’ve done all season.
Another advantage is that the Gamecocks are coming off of a win. Although it wasn’t against an SEC opponent, it’s still a win which gives them momentum coming into Saturday. Clemson on the other hand is coming off of a disappointing loss, so the Tigers will either come into this contest out of sorts because of the loss or completely focused, that’s something we’ll have to wait until Saturday to figure out.
Third, as I stated earlier, Clemson has had trouble in the past containing running quarterbacks. The Tigers will have to bottle Shaw up in order to win this game, and if they can’t it may be a long night in Columbia for Dabo and the Tigers.
Advantages for Clemson-
Yes the Tigers are coming off of a loss; however I see Clemson’s lackluster performance at NC State to be a good thing coming into the Carolina game. I see their loss as a wakeup call, showing them that they’ll have to put in a lot more effort than they did against NC State to win football games. Also Coach Morris said Monday that he believes that some players are getting too comfortable in their positions, therefore opening up all of the starting positions, making the players compete in practice for their time on the field.
Second, the Gamecocks have won this meeting the past two years even though the Tigers’ have a strong command on the series. The Gamecocks are the higher ranked team this time around and could possibly misinterpret how Clemson has been playing for the past few weeks and not take the Tigers’ as seriously as they should. The Gamecocks haven’t won three straight years against the Tigers since the 1970’s and therefore Clemson will do whatever it takes Saturday to make sure they don’t win a third time again.
Most importantly, Coach Morris said Monday that he believed the Tigers’ started off the season so well because they had something to prove. They received a lot of negative publicity during the off season due to a disappointing 2010 season; therefore they came into 2011 hungry and wanting to get the bad taste of losing out of their mouths. Well the taste is back and so is some of the negative publicity for the first time this season. Clemson lost to a team that they should have easily beat last weekend and therefore will come into Columbia looking to prove to the nation that they are a top team and that they’re not the same team from last year that crumbled under adversity.
This is a very difficult game to predict because both teams have had equal amounts of success this season. Clemson’s defense hasn’t stopped a running quarterback yet this season and I honestly am not sure if they’ll be able to completely contain Shaw. Clemson’s offense however I believe will provide the spark for the Tigers this week, as freshman phenom Sammy Watkins who was held out for the NC State game with an AC sprain is now healthy and has practiced all week. Watkins’ return along with starting left tackle Philip Price coming back from a knee injury he suffered against Wake Forest will get the Tigers back to their old tricks and although I believe this game will be in typical Clemson fashion, a nail biter, I have faith that Clemson will turn things around and will go back to being the 8-0 Tigers that shocked the world earlier this season.