By Will Vandervort.
When 22nd-ranked Clemson opened up the game against archrival South Carolina last year, the Tigers marched right down the field.
Running back Roderick McDowell was plowing through the Gamecocks’ defensive front and then quarterback Tajh Boyd found Sammy Watkins for a huge gain that moved the football to the USC 30-yard line.
But on the very next play Clemson tried to get cute. Watkins caught a lateral and then heaved a pass towards a wide open Adam Humphries, but the ball hung in the air and USC safety Brison Williams intercepted it in the end zone for a touchback.
“He had Adam opened up the sideline and he held the ball a little too long and if he just dumps it right over the top, Adam scores. But he held it a little too long and they come over and pick it off,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “Obviously, we were going in to score so it had a little effect on the momentum.”
It was a sign of things to come for the Tigers in that 31-17 loss. Clemson turned the ball over six times that night in Columbia, which has been one of the biggest reasons why the Gamecocks have won five straight in the longstanding rivalry.
“I thought we played really well, offensively, last year,” Morris said. “I know we turned the ball over two times late in the game when we got behind and were pressing. I thought we ran the ball efficiently. But when you look at the history of this game over the last five years, it boils down to turnovers.”
The Tigers (8-3) have turned the football over 15 times to USC’s three in the last five meetings, including a 12-to-1 ratio since Morris became the offensive coordinator at Clemson in 2011.
“When you put yourself behind the eight-ball, sort of speak, against a quality opponent, and it does not matter who you play, it is tough to catch up and we have proven that this year as well,” he said. “Turnovers have been a huge part of it in this ballgame and I don’t think we have played well as an entire unit.”
Entering Saturday’s high-noon showdown in Death Valley, Clemson is once again having its issues holding onto the ball. The Tigers turned the ball over twice against Georgia State last week, had three turnovers against Georgia Tech the week before and lost the turnover battle in games against Wake Forest and Syracuse prior to that.
Quarterback Cole Stoudt, who could play against the Gamecocks should Deshaun Watson not be able to go, has been responsible for most of those turnovers. In the games against Syracuse, Wake and Georgia Tech he was charged with all seven turnovers and he has totaled four in the last two games.
He has thrown nine interceptions on the season to this point.
“We are not going to try to do too much because when you do that, that is when mistakes come in,” Stoudt said. “We just have to do what we do best and just go out there and have some fun.”
For Morris, it’s simple. If the Tigers take care of the football – they’ll win the game.
“When you study the turnovers that have happened in this game, we had two on punts last year where one just basically bounces off one of our guy’s helmets,” he said. “Was the guy too tense? I don’t know if that is the case or not. It has just been part of it. It is hard to explain.
“If anyone can explain the turnovers and why they happen and how they happen then there are some coaches that will subscribe to any offers on that.”