How can Clemson block South Carolina?
Of all the recurring narratives that have cropped up consistently since last year’s meeting between the rival schools, this is the one that most often puzzles people.
Certainly this was a major question last year, and the Tigers were exposed to the tune of six sacks. It was a coronation for Jadaveon Clowney, who closed the year with a bang that included a 4.5-sack performance in Memorial Stadium in South Carolina’s most recent victory over the Tigers.
The individual effort gave the Gamecocks yet another feather in their caps. It also led to speculation that a bigger, faster, stronger, better Clowney could do similar things after a year’s worth of development.
But things have changed dramatically in 2013. Clowney is no longer the most feared pass rusher in the state. He has only two sacks in nine games played this season—fewer than five players on Clemson’s team, including freshman backup defensive end Shaq Lawson (3).
Clemson’s Vic Beasley has ten sacks and is skyrocketing up draft boards, while Clowney’s stock takes a hit with every sackless game. The presumed top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft—before the start of the season, at least—does not have a sack in his last six games. His last sack was on September 14 against Vanderbilt.
Sacks aren’t the only way for an edge rusher to impact a game, although Clowney hasn’t been particularly strong in any others, either. The junior has 8.5 tackles for loss, which would rank fifth on Clemson’s roster. He has seven quarterback pressures, which would be tied for sixth at Clemson.
Sure, teams are running and rolling away from Clowney, but the downturn in his production is more severe than that. There are times in every game when certain play calls invite pressure. Those are times when players like Clowney get a chance to shine, even when the majority of the game doesn’t favor them at all.
But Clowney’s totals leave much to be desired, even for a player unaccompanied by the caliber of hype he arrogantly carried with him into the season. Over the past two years, Clowney has averaged 11.5 sacks and 17.8 tackles for loss per season. He’s got a massive amount of work to do to reach those averages this year.
The fact is that South Carolina’s best defensive end wouldn’t crack the top 50 in sacks in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He would be tied for 31st in the conference in tackles for loss.
For a player saddled with such ridiculous expectations, that’s embarrassing.
This indictment of Clowney speaks to a broader problem with South Carolina. The strength of this defense last season was its ability to pressure the pocket. That’s no longer the case.
On the flip side, Clemson has struggled to impact games up front. That’s not the case anymore, either.
Consider that this is the first time Clemson has led South Carolina in sacks (31-19) and tackles for loss (106-74) since 2009. It speaks to the Tigers’ superiority up front, but it also speaks to a different narrative within the game last season.
Clowney picked up the praise and accolades for his performance, but Devin Taylor was the best player on the field for the Gamecocks against the Tigers. He was unblockable, and on film it is clear 2.5 of Clowney’s sacks came as Tajh Boyd was attempting to escape Taylor’s rush.
Taylor’s importance has been underscored this season, as the Gamecocks have 13 fewer sacks through 11 games than they did in 2012. Meanwhile, the Tigers are ahead of their 11-game total by seven sacks, giving Clemson a +20 advantage in terms of differential.
Without Taylor to flank him, Clowney has sputtered. His offseason boastings about which quarterbacks feared him have faded into the distance, as opposing offenses learn it was Taylor they should have feared all along.
Clowney’s ineffectiveness doesn’t mean he shouldn’t always be accounted for in the gameplan. A player of his size, speed, and athleticism can bust out at any time. The problem is that we haven’t seen it all year.
Given what we’ve seen to this point in the season, the original question—Can Clemson block South Carolina?—seems rather insignificant. Since the roles have now reversed, a better question might be this:
Can South Carolina block Clemson?
The answer may be the difference between winning and losing, just like the past four years have in the opposite direction.