By William Qualkinbush.
Here is a lengthy list of my thoughts after watching and re-watching Clemson’s 31-17 loss to the Gamecocks…
- I know people are quick to criticize Dabo Swinney and the coaching staff for losing five straight games to South Carolina. At times, I have echoed this sentiment. But this loss was more about execution than gameplan, in my opinion. I’d point the finger more toward players than coaches.
- I noted during pregame that the crowd wasn’t as hyped as I thought it would be. It got better as the game kicked off, but I didn’t think it was as loud as the crowd two seasons ago.
- The main reason I take exception with the decision to call the wide receiver pass on the first drive is how good the playcalling was before that point. The Clemson offense was in a rhythm. Tajh Boyd completed each of his first five throws. Rod McDowell had a nice run. It just seemed like an odd time to throw in a wrinkle.
- Another beef I had with the call was that it came within the scripted portion of the offensive gameplan. Generally, the first several play calls—the number differs from game to game—are scripted based on the tendencies of the opposing defense and the comfort level of the offense at the outset of the game. Chad Morris has been known to freelance some, but he sticks to the script for the most part. It seems likely this was a scripted play, which bothers me. In my view, a play like that should come after taking some time to read the reactions of the defense to certain action pre-snap and within the play. There’s no way to judge that if it’s been pre-called.
- Simply put, Watkins should have eaten the ball. Frankly, the play should have been changed at the line of scrimmage. Brison Williams—who ended up intercepting the pass—was about 20 yards downfield at the snap of the ball. The presence of a deep safety significantly decreases the probability of success there. Yes, if the ball were thrown on a lower trajectory, it wouldn’t have mattered. But Watkins should have either thrown the ball away or run it given Williams’ positioning. I must note that I didn’t see Williams out there from the press box. I even said “Touchdown” when I saw Adam Humphries streaking, thinking there was no one around him. Maybe Watkins saw the same thing.
- All three levels of Clemson’s defense did an exceptional job shutting down Mike Davis. He had 22 yards rushing on 15 carries. His longest run went for four yards. The Tigers displayed a great pack mentality in flocking to Davis all over the field.
- The individual battle that most favored the Gamecocks seemed to be Shaq Roland against Darius Robinson. Roland only had three catches in the game, and all of them came within the first 15:06 of the game, but his impact surpassed the stat sheet. He opened the second quarter with an incredible touchdown catch through great coverage by Breeland, and both of his other receptions went for first downs. Time and time again, Roland either drew pass interference calls or got Robinson out of position in coverage. If Shaw hadn’t missed him a couple of times on deep throws, Roland might have had a monster game. Neither Robinson nor Breeland ever looked really comfortable in the game.
- After the Gamecocks methodically moved the ball with a 17-play drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock, Clemson’s answer was quick and emphatic. The skinny post to Watkins was a beautiful throw-and-catch, and the Clemson junior used his athleticism and speed to extend the play. Four plays and 1:38 later, the game was tied.
- Third-down defense has been a huge key in this matchup over the past couple of years. South Carolina converted on all three of its attempts during its first drive. Then when Clemson forced a three-and-out, the fumbled punt put the defense out on the field. The Gamecocks were 8-11 on third downs in the first half.
- Speaking of that fumbled punt, special teams issues continue for Clemson in the return game. Two miscues in this game, plus an anemic return game in general, puts a great deal of the blame on the kick and punt return units for the loss. Simply put, Clemson’s problems go well beyond Martavis Bryant bumping into Humphries or Humphries fumbling while trying to change hands on a return. The return units are fundamentally broken.
- Part of the third-down issues in this particular game came because of the variety of ways in which the Gamecock offense can beat you. Clemson attempted to use five- and six-man boxes to defend Shaw in long-yardage situations because of the susceptibility associated with playing man coverage down the field. On multiple occasions throughout the game, a defender spying Shaw reacted to his run action by abandoning coverage—as he should. But that leaves a dump-off passing lane open, which Shaw utilized a ton.
- Man coverage was also death for the Tigers. An undisciplined pass rush left Shaw some wide-open running lanes that were easily accessible. He even tucked the ball down and ran against a controlled pass rush designed to push the pocket. Simply put, Shaw was as much of a headache as a player could be for Brent Venables.
- Clemson’s turnover problems are obvious, but a there was a drive midway through the second quarter that should have resulted in points and didn’t. McDowell’s long run should have kicked the offense back in gear, but instead Boyd took a pair of sacks. The first one was a pretty good individual play by Kelcy Quarles (where the officials conveniently missed him grabbing and turning Boyd’s helmet). The second one was on Boyd. He had all day to throw and a perfect pocket to sit inside to read the coverage. Instead, he rolled left for some reason—directly into Jadeveon Clowney. His poor decision cost the Tigers a golden opportunity there.
- How lucky is it that Shaw’s fumble bounced right to him? Consider that the muffed punt also bounced directly away from a Clemson player into a mass of Gamecocks. It’s just that kind of rivalry right now.
- I am a huge fan of the middle screen pass to McDowell. Schematically, it came at a time when South Carolina started to dial up some pressure, and screens and draws help keep blitzers and pass rushers at bay. McDowell had a big run on the next play as well. That guy had a phenomenal night overall. Anything that featured him seemed to work.
- I have two comments on the intentional grounding play on the final drive of the first half. First of all, Dabo Swinney was right. Watkins was running a corner route. Boyd threw the ball to a spot, and Watkins never even attempted to get there. His lack of effort—rare to criticize him that way—led to the penalty. The officials were almost forced to call it.
- Second, and much more significantly in my opinion, why in the world was the ball spotted at the 29-yard-line? Boyd clearly released the football at the 21 and got tackled back to the 29. Eight yards heading into a crucial third down play might have made a significant difference, but the official threw his flag where Boyd was lying and never thought twice. I guess I was the only one who thought that was a major, major deal. While Swinney was arguing about routes, I thought he should have been arguing for a better ball spot. The penalty is enforced from the spot of the foul, not the spot where the player ended up on the ground. I was incensed about that blatant mishandling of the call by the officials to no avail.
- Steve Spurrier made some quality adjustments on offense at the half. There were more designed runs for Shaw, and he took advantage of over-pursuit by linebackers and the need for Clemson’s defense to devote more bodies into coverage. Too often, Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony committed too far into a hole, only to see Shaw cut back and use blockers to find another crease. When Brent Venables says he tried everything, he was right. Nothing worked against Shaw.
- Bruce Ellington had the same opportunity Watkins did to throw the football on a wide receiver screen pass, but he tucked the ball down and ran for positive yardage. It was an interesting contrast.
- The stand by the Tigers early in the third quarter was huge. It was a microcosm of the entire game. On traditional running plays, Clemson was downright dominant—including the QB sneak attempt by Shaw. But when Shaw freelanced or ran the zone read, it was a different story.
- It’s hard to nitpick about a catch, but if Humphries doesn’t go to the turf on his slant route around the 9:00 mark of the third quarter, he might score. It looked like there was nothing but green in front of him.
- The fourth-down offsides that kept that drive alive was a brilliant bit of coaching. Normally on the fake jet QB power plays generally used on short yardage, Boyd takes the snap, fakes to Watkins, then runs forward. On this particular play, however, Ryan Norton waited for Watkins to go in motion past Boyd to snap the ball. That threw off the normal timing of the play, causing the defender to jump into the neutral zone. It was an excellent job of using tendency against the opposition.
- Just imagine how lopsided the time of possession might have been if the Tigers hadn’t spent 6:48 of the third quarter on a 15-play scoring drive. It was basically 2-to-1 anyway.
- Spurrier’s decision to go for it on 4th and 1 late in the third quarter was ludicrous. South Carolina was at its own 35 in a tie game. You just don’t do what he did. But what was more ridiculous was his choice to try to draw Clemson offsides after already burning a timeout. It could have cost him two timeouts, which might have been huge down the stretch.
- I feel bad for DeShawn Williams. He jumped offsides on that play, giving the Gamecocks new life. The reason I feel bad for him is that he was coaxed offsides by a simulated snap count, which is definitely against the rules. It was hard to see live but clear on the broadcast. The officials missed yet another major call.
- I’m sorry, but any rule that makes the long pass to Roland an incomplete pass is a stupid, stupid rule. He takes five or six steps and falls down with the ball. The ball pops out after he hits the ground and bounces. The Gamecocks should have had first down at the goal line on that play, because I believe Roland was down when the ball popped out anyway.
- People who say Boyd doesn’t show up for big games are being too simplistic. He had a good game, not a great one, in a hostile environment against a top ten team. Until his fumble with 8:38 to play, Boyd led a solid drive. He had a big-time run for a first down early in the possession, muscling his way through tacklers to the marker. But you cannot allow a defender to take the ball away from you there, under any circumstances. That absolutely killed the last positive momentum the Tigers had in the game.
- Humphries just didn’t switch hands well on his fumble. He has to have better ball security than that. End of discussion.
- It was a brilliant call on the part of Spurrier to get the final touchdown. Clemson only had one deep safety on the play. Jayron Kearse was in the box for run support, and Robert Smith was shaded to the left hash over the inside slot receiver in a trips set. Pharaoh Cooper showed run action to the right, then lobbed the ball to Brandon Wilds. Obviously, Kearse was at the line of scrimmage in run support, so there was nobody home behind Wilds. There’s nothing else to do but chalk that one up to a doggone good play call by Spurrier and his staff. The South Carolina coaches are to the left of the press box, and the offensive staff to our immediate left (I was near the left side of the press area) went berserk when the touchdown was scored. It was a pretty cool scene, honestly.
- Boyd could have added a huge piece to his legacy by leading at least one touchdown drive down the stretch of the game. Instead, he rolled over on the first play, forcing the ball into quadruple coverage right to a Gamecock defender. Even for casual fans, Boyd’s inability to even give Clemson a chance in crunch time is disappointing.
- At the end of the day, as important as Clemson’s six turnovers were, South Carolina’s lack of turnovers was just as important. I’m convinced Clemson is the more talented team, but South Carolina sat back and watched as the Tigers mortally wounded themselves down the stretch. That was the ultimate difference. One team made all of the critical mistakes in the game.