10-2 is not Good Enough for Tigers
By Brandon Rink
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Clemson put up great performances against mediocre-to-bad programs this regular season, but came up short in both games needed for a truly successful season.
Going into Saturday night, Clemson had set 42 single-game or single-season school records in 2012.
By the time the clock hit zero in Death Valley, however, the record that mattered most was rival South Carolina tying its longest winning streak in the series by again stifling Chad Morris’ offense and seizing the 27-17 victory.
USC defensive end Jadeveon Clowney terrorized the Tigers all night long, setting the single-season school mark for sacks (13) and the Memorial Stadium single-game record in sacks and tackles for loss (4.5). The Gamecocks (10-2) inflicted a season-high six sacks allowed for a Clemson offensive line that had held the ACC’s team sack leaders in check in back-to-back weeks.
Gamecocks backup quarterback Dylan Thompson out-dueled ACC Player of the Year candidate Tajh Boyd, connecting on 23-of-41 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and crippled the Tigers’ defense in critical situations by scrambling for 73 yards (taking out sacks).
Boyd looked sharp early, with a perfect 43-yard touchdown strike to DeAndre Hopkins, who set an ACC mark for the most consecutive games with a receiving score (nine). But after the third drive – making it 14-7 Clemson with 1:22 left in the first quarter – it all went downhill for Morris’ offense…a slow, excruciating death in front of 82,000 mostly-orange clad fans.
Clemson (10-2) averaged 4.3 plays per drive on their last nine possessions, with four punts, two interceptions, the end of both halves and a field goal.
In the second half, USC held the ball for 23:19, keeping Clemson to 19 plays after running 40 in the first half. The Tigers weren’t doing anything with the ball when they had it either. Hopkins’ lone catch was the touchdown, with multiple uncharacteristic drops on the night, after averaging 6.1 receptions for over 100 yards per game coming into the game. Watkins was held to 9.3 yards per catch on four grabs (averaged 6.6 catches for 84 yards per contest in eight starts).
Clemson reached the red zone just twice, kicking only its 11th red zone field goal on one of the tries. Clemson averaged almost four red zone touchdowns through its first 11 games.
“We got out of our gameplan a little bit and what we were going to do,” Boyd said. “We got into some situations where we had to dig out of holes. We got predictable with third-and-long situations.”
Boyd had a 68% completion percentage through 11 games, but only hit 45.8% of his passes on the night (11-of-24). His fourth-quarter interception into double-coverage, feeling the heat again from the USC defensive line, set up the Gamecocks’ first two-possession lead and the eventual final with 7:39 to go.
“It was kinda rushed decisions,” Boyd said. “Their plays definitely affected me, but at the same time, I've either got to throw it away or do something.”
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ first shot in the battle of the Palmetto State was a night to forget, as he actually surrendered more yards than his predecessor Kevin Steele did last season in Columbia in a 34-13 loss (444 to 420).
“We couldn’t make a play,” Venables said. “We couldn’t make a stop. Defense is about making stops…we just weren’t good enough. We didn’t coach them good enough and couldn’t make a play when we needed one.”
South Carolina converted on 11-of-21 third downs, and Thompson connected with receiver Ace Sanders for 19.8 yards per catch (six for 119 yards) and the touchdown that gave the Gamecocks their first lead in the third quarter.
“Keeping their offense off the field was a big part of our gameplan,” Sanders said. “But we wanted to stay on the field too. During the rest of the season, we were going three-and-out, but we wanted to see that we could stay on the field.
“We wanted to show we weren’t just dependent on our defense.”
Playing keep-away from the Clemson offense in the second half was a crucial aspect of the contest to Dabo Swinney.
“They disrupted our rhythm,” Swinney said. “We only got two plays in the third quarter and their 86 plays to our 59 was huge…
“Their time of possession was unbelievable. We could never get in rhythm and it was just a bad team effort.”
In many respects, it’s a lost season in TigerTown.
Clemson put up great performances against mediocre-to-bad programs, but came up short in both games needed for a truly successful season (49-37 to FSU for the Atlantic; 27-17 to USC for the state championship).
Boyd is still likely in line for ACC Player of the Year, while a smattering of Tigers should line the All-ACC team. The defense had its peaks and valleys, but the bellwether for the season as a whole will come in the bowl game.
With the talent coming back, Clemson is likely a preseason top-10 and ACC favorite in 2013, and that campaign starts with the postseason.
Swinney, as an interim and full-time head coach, is 1-3 in bowls, and will likely face another top-15 SEC team as the opponent this year, most likely in the Chick-fil-A or Sugar Bowl.
The Tigers’ BCS dreams are on life support, but if Oklahoma (9-2) loses at TCU, Kent State (11-1) doesn’t jump into the top-16 in the BCS by winning the MAC title this weekend and Clemson is still in the top-14, they are likely the last eligible team left for selection.
Sounds crazy, but that’s college football this year.
The Tigers might take an easier opponent in Atlanta, but they obviously wouldn’t mind the dollar signs that roll in with back-to-back BCS bids.
Either way, Swinney needs some momentum for recruiting purposes going into ’13.