By Will Vandervort.
The countdown will soon end and for the 112th time Clemson and South Carolina will meet on the gridiron in what is one of the nation’s oldest and most bitter rivalries.
Just like any other year when these two rivals get together, the storylines are a plenty. How effective will Deshaun Watson be against USC’s poorish defense? Can Tyshon Dye be an X-factor for the Clemson offense? Who will win the battle up front between Clemson’s senior-laden defensive line vs. South Carolina’s veteran offensive line?
And finally, can the 21st-ranked Tigers end the losing streak to USC that has been hanging over their heads for the last five years?
“We want to get that taste out of our mouths,” Clemson defensive tackle DeShawn Williams said. “Enough is enough.”
Clemson (8-3) has lived with the sting of losing to the Gamecocks despite all the success it has had in other areas of the program. In 2011, it won an ACC Championship. It has recorded at least 10 victories in a season for three straight years – the first time that has happened since the mid-1980s and early-‘90s.
The Tigers have recorded back-to-back top 10 seasons, won an Orange Bowl, played in two BCS games and have beaten powerhouses Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Ohio State along the way.
And though those are good things, the cloud of not beating USC during the height of its program has taken the shine off all of those other accomplishments.
“It has been five years since we have won this game. We have been in position in the past, but we have to win on the scoreboard,” Clemson defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We have to put an end to it at some point and I will like to be a part of a team that will put an end to it.”
Fittingly enough, Jarrett’s and his fellow defensive teammates will play a big role if the Tigers are able to end the streak or not when the game kicks off at noon on Saturday in Death Valley.
Clemson’s defense leads the country in total defense at 252.4 yards a game and ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (8th), rushing defense (7th), passing defense (2nd), yards per play (1st), sacks (5th), tackles for loss (1st) and third down defense (1st).
“They’re all over the place. They don’t just line up and say ‘we’re coming from right here.’ They slant and move,” South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said to the media earlier this week.
“They’re talented, well coached and they’re all over the place.”
But don’t let Spurrier fool you, he has a good enough offense to give the Tigers some issues.
The Gamecocks (6-5) have the most balanced offensive attack Clemson has seen this year and the best since North Carolina racked up 478 total yards and 35 points in Death Valley on Sept. 27th.
South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson has completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,031 yards and 23 touchdowns this year and is 176 yards away from setting the school’s all-time season-record for passing yards.
The running game is led by running back Mike Davis’ 888 yards and nine touchdowns, while wide receiver Pharoh Cooper has a team high 58 catches for 921 yards and eight scores, while also throwing two touchdown-passes and running for another out of the Gamecocks’ Wildcat formation.
“Every year has its different challenges and the strength of their team is their offense and the balance they have both running and throwing,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
“They have good, talented players and again, they have had great success on offense,” he continued. “I don’t think it is very arguable that Pharoh Cooper is a great player. He makes all the clutch plays whether he is the Wildcat guy, in the return game, catching the deep-post route or catching a quick-post route. They are going to find ways to feature him and put him in position to help them win the game.”
Last year, Clemson might not have won the game, but it won at the point of attack as it won out on a lot of the man-to-man matchups, especially at the line of scrimmage. The Tigers held USC to 318 total yards and 140 on the ground. Davis was a non-factor as he rushed for 22 yards on 15 carries and while Cooper was held in check with just 18 yards on four carries out of the Wildcat, he did throw a 26-yard touchdown pass to running back Brandon Wilds that sealed the Gamecocks’ victory.
Former quarterback Connor Shaw rushed for 94 yards on 22 carries and completed 14 of 26 passes for 152 yards, while running for one score and throwing for another.
“There was plenty we could have done last year to win that game, but we were not good enough in critical situations, where when we could get the ball back. But we did not do it,” Venables said. “They played better than us on third down and we did not have the discipline on fourth-and-one.
“We did not handle adversity good enough. There is a lot to learn from it and we have to play better as a football team than we did a year ago.”
And more importantly, for Clemson, it has to end the streak.