Swinney, Spurrier Prepare for Clash
By Brandon Rink
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Dabo Swinney and Steve Spurrier have added additional fuel to this year's Clemson-South Carolina rivalry.
After an offseason of talk, the coaches involved in this week’s Palmetto State showdown – the No. 9 Clemson Tigers hosting the No. 12 South Carolina Gamecocks – preferred to keep the focus on the field.
“This is not about me and Coach (Steve) Spurrier,” Dabo Swinney said. “It’s not. Some might want to make it that way, but I’m not really comfortable with that.
“I want our guys to play great, and I’m just trying to get a first down on Saturday.”
Spurrier said the same in his own way, while referring back to Swinney’s famous “tweet that” post-practice rant, which for the un-informed, pointed out certain identification issues for the Gamecocks with “USC” and “Carolina”, and maintained Clemson as the flagship school of the state.
“I guess Dabo – I found out he loves Southern California and the University of North Carolina,” he said. “That’s the only thing I know about him. He really likes those two schools. Other than that, it’s no big deal.”
What is the big deal for Swinney is beating South Carolina, after dropping three-straight by 20 points per game. With a loss Saturday, he is in danger of coaching the first senior class without a win over the Gamecocks since 1954.
USC delivering a fourth-straight defeat would also, in some respects, put an asterisk on the Tigers’ double-digit win season, without a true top-25 win on the résumé. It would also eliminate Clemson from a shot at earning back-to-back BCS bowl bids.
Either way, it’s put up or shut up time for two programs on the rise in South Carolina.
Time / Place / TV: 7:15 p.m. ET / Memorial Stadium, Clemson, SC / ESPN
South Carolina players to watch (2012 stats): QB Connor Shaw (1,732 passing yards, 15 TD, 7 INT); RBs Kenny Miles (313 rushing yards); RB Mike Davis (232 rushing yards); WRs Bruce Ellington (492 rec. yards); Ace Sanders (320 rec. yards, 6 TD); TE Justice Cunningham (261 rec. yards, 5 TD); DEs Jadeveon Clowney (8.5 sacks, 17 TFL); Devin Taylor (2.5 sacks); LB Shaq Wilson (72 tackles); DB D.J. Swearinger (65 tackles).
Stats to watch:
1) Connor Shaw rushing impact – USC’s signal-caller scorched Clemson’s defense with scrambles and designed runs last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and going for 107 yards and a touchdown, in addition to completing 14-of-20 passes for 210 yards and three more scores. Adding to the intrigue coming in, Shaw was held out of practice early in the week with a foot injury. In the Gamecocks’ eight FBS wins, he’s averaged 40.5 yards per game with three touchdowns. In USC’s two losses (on the road at Florida and LSU), he has rushed for minus-three yards total. Clemson has already been burned by a mobile quarterback this season in their lone loss (FSU’s E.J. Manuel – 11 carries for 102 yards, 9.3 yards per carry), but has also improved 30 spots in rushing defense from midseason until now (102nd to 72nd).
2) Clemson’s red zone offense v. USC red zone defense – The worst offensive performance in the Chad Morris era came in Columbia last year, where Tigers' gunslinger Tajh Boyd only hit 11-of-29 pass attempts for 83 yards with a touchdown and pick. But fast-forward to a season later, Clemson has the hottest offense in the country, ranking No. 2 in the nation in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns 75 percent of the time. But with a top-15 red zone defense, South Carolina would like to replay the Tigers’ nightmare. They’ve held opponents to a 43.2 percent touchdown rate in the red zone. The other side of the coin isn’t bad either, with Clemson 18th in red zone defense and USC punching in scores at a 68.2 percent rate.
3) Sacks allowed – Boyd was sacked five times by the Gamecocks’ defensive line last year, and they rank eighth in the nation this season, with Jadeveon Clowney leading the way (8.5 sacks). But Clemson has shut-out the ACC’s team leaders in sacks over the last two weeks, and rank 59th nationally in sacks allowed. On the flipside, led by sophomore defensive end Vic Beasley (eight sacks), the Tigers have posted 3.4 sacks per game over their last five contests, and face a USC offensive line that’s 100th in the nation in surrendering sacks, with four of them coming last week against FCS-opponent Wofford.
USC offense vs. Clemson defense: For a second straight season, the Gamecocks meet their rivals without dynamic running back Marcus Lattimore, after he suffered another midseason major knee injury. USC is 93rd in total offense, but is in the top-50 (45th) in Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency rankings. Without Lattimore, the production overall is slightly down, but they have converted above their season averages on third down conversions (53.8 percent) and in the red zone (83 percent) over the last two games. Shaw runs the show, though, and his health is the key against a Clemson defense that had steadily improved up to last week’s shootout. Shaw is a gamer, and expect Spurrier to exploit multiple weaknesses in Brent Venables’ defense. But don’t underestimate the home factor in the fourth quarter, in a raucous night atmosphere in Death Valley, as Clemson may not be able to stop USC all game long.
Edge: South Carolina
Tigers offense vs. Gamecocks defense: Has Superman met his kryptonite? To an extent, that was the case last season when the Tigers rolled into Williams-Brice Stadium, and limped home after their worst performance under Morris. But Swinney and his offensive coordinator have been quick to point out how much better this year’s edition is playing coming in – averaging 9.5 more points (44.6 PPG) and over 70 yards more (535.6 YPG) than after 11 games last season. There’s no arguing the engineer of that success is Boyd, who’s completing 68 percent of his passes at 9.5 yards per attempt, with almost four touchdowns per game. In some positions, the players have changed, but the production is still there for Lorenzo Ward’s USC defense. He has as scary a defensive line as there is in college football, but if you’re looking for a weakness, his secondary did give up 381 passing yards and five touchdowns to a struggling Vols squad not long ago. Clemson hasn’t really been stopped yet, and Saturday would be an untimely spot for it to happen for Swinney and co., because it’s hard to envision the Tigers winning a defensive battle.
Misc. (Coaching, Intangibles, Trends, etc.): South Carolina’s seniors don’t know what it’s like to walk off the field after a loss to Clemson. And conversely, a core of Tiger seniors, who stuck around for Swinney’s first season as a head coach to now, haven’t beaten the Gamecocks. For one side, there’s a confidence. For the other, there is the motivation to not to be the first class since 1954 to lose four straight to USC. It’s a reversal of fortunes in a series that was dominated by Clemson under Swinney’s predecessor (Tommy Bowden: 7-2), but Swinney did win as an interim coach in 2008 (31-14). The Tigers are still riding their school-record home winning streak, last losing to South Carolina in 2010. Clemson is 26-4 overall at home under Swinney, with the last three losses coming against top-20 teams. Oh, and there will be a charged-up, well-fueled night atmosphere at Memorial Stadium.
Pick: Clemson 34-28