There are moments in every rivalry when the tide turns. It’s that moment when fans look back and say, “That’s when it all began.”
It happens all throughout the course of a rivalry’s series, especially in a rivalry as old as the Clemson-Carolina series.
There was Rex Enright’s new car after the Gamecocks head coach stopped Clemson’s seven-year run in the series with an 18-14 victory in 1941. Enright went on to beat Clemson eight times (8-7-1) in his 15 years as head coach, still the most by any Carolina coach in the history of the rivalry.
There is Jeff Grantz’s pass to Stevie Stevens with 19 seconds left in a 56-20 USC victory in 1975 that sparked a fire in the Clemson locker room and a commitment by then head coach Red Parker and the Tigers that no Clemson team would be that embarrassed by the Gamecocks again.
Clemson went on to win 24 of the next 33 games (24-8-1) after 1975, completely dominating the series, until the fumble in 2009 turn the tide again.
With the Tigers already in front by seven points and driving for more, Jamie Harper fumbled in South Carolina territory and USC recovered to change the momentum of the game and the rivalry for the next five years. The Gamecocks went on to beat Clemson 34-17 that afternoon, beginning a five-year win streak in the series – their longest.
Prior to that, South Carolina had not won two straight games in the series since a three-game win streak from 1968-’70.
Then came the 2014 game. Before coming to Clemson, Deshaun Watson said he was never going to lose to the Gamecocks.
But when Watson went down with a knee injury against Georgia Tech two weeks before the game, South Carolina’s opportunity to extend the streak to six straight years seemed likely. In the week of the game, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney would not say if Watson was playing, but he did not rule him out either.
As it turned out, Watson did play and he played at a high level as he threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-19 passing, while also running for two more scores to snap the Tigers’ five-game losing streak in the series.
After the game, Swinney announced Watson played on a torn ACL in his left knee and he was going to have surgery that next week, making his performance even that much more impressive and heroic.
“I love to compete whether I’m banged up or not. I just want to help the team in any kind of way so we can get the W,” Watson said. “It’s just one of those things that were not really a big deal for me. I just wanted to get out there and play. Maybe for other people it was, but for me it was another game in which I was trying to help the team win.”
Swinney ranks that afternoon as one of Watson’s best in his three seasons at Clemson.
“It was unbelievable,” Swinney said. “I just was really blown away the entire game and how he played, competed and performed. It was spectacular.”
Watson had another unbelievable performance against the Gamecocks the next year in Columbia. The 2015 Heisman Trophy Finalist completed 20-of-27 passes for 279 yards, while rushing for three scores and throwing a 55-yard touchdown pass to Deon Cain. One of his rushing touchdowns went for 30 yards.
He finished the game with 114 yards on 21 carries.
Now, as he heads into Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. kick against the Gamecocks with a 2-0 record, Watson is hoping to fulfill the promise he made. And if he does, then his performance on a torn ACL in the 2014 game will go down as one of those moments that changed the rivalry, again.
“A lot of people did not know about it until Swinney announced it after the game, but it was just something that Clemson fans for five years wanted to see happen,” Watson said. “That team in 2014 got it done and we are going to try and continue the streak and continue going. At the end of the day, we just have to go out there and play our ball game and don’t worry about continuing the streak and being 1-0 on Saturday and let everything else take care of itself.”