The year was 1955. Under Coach Rex Enright—the winningest coach at South Carolina until Steve Spurrier broke his record—, the Gamecocks had won four straight over hated rivals Clemson and came into the game 2-2. The Tigers were 3-1 after suffering an upset loss to unranked Rice the week prior. Clemson won the game 28-14 at Williams-Brice en route to a 7-3 season while the Gamecocks would finish 3-6.
Not since then has any South Carolina football team been able to boast a four-game winning streak over “that other South Carolina school”. Both teams though, are enjoying unprecedented success at the national level.
When the 9-2 Gamecocks welcome the 10-1 Tigers to Williams-Brice at 7 p.m. for the 111th meeting of the two schools—104th consecutive—Clemson will be looking to get a long-standing bitter taste out of their mouth, and both teams will be looking to impress with BCS bowl bids still on the line.
The key to success during the last four years has been controlling the clock and pressuring Tajh Boyd. Dominating the trenches and being able to run the ball, even without Marcus Lattimore for the last two years, has allowed to Gamecocks to keep a high-octane Tiger offense off the field. Last year, South Carolina controlled the ball for seconds shy of 40 minutes, running 88 plays compared to Clemson’s 60.
Different year, same story. South Carolina runs the ball well, averaging 211 yards per game, good for 21st in the country, behind SEC leading rusher, Mike Davis. Behind him is a finally healthy Brandon Wilds, the bruiser, and he should see plenty of action on Saturday in relief of Davis. Also, a threat in the running game is Shon Carson and second-leading rusher Connor Shaw. Shaw finally looks to have recovered from a knee sprain that was bothering him for a few weeks and looks to be his old again. On the year, Shaw has rushed for 417 yards and four touchdowns.
Through the air, South Carolina is averaging 255 yards per game, which is not exactly a head turning statistic; however, a good running game opens up an effective play action pass game, and a deep and able-bodied corps of receivers are ready to step up if they need to. Connor Shaw is completing 62% of his passes on the year for nearly 2,000 yards and is sporting an impeccable 20:1 touchdown: interception ratio.
On the other end of Shaw’s passes is a myriad of receivers, none of whom has more than 40 catches and four of whom have more than 24 receptions on the year. Bruce Ellington leads the way with 584 yards on 39 catches with six touchdowns to boot. Not far behind him is the ever-improving deep threat, the speedy Damiere Byrd, who is averaging over 18 yards per catch, second only to Shaq Roland.
Saturday will be close to the healthiest that the Gamecocks will have been all year. This includes their offensive line, which at different points in the season has been without senior guard Ronald Patrick and their stud freshman center, Cody Waldrop. This offensive line unit has played as well if not better and more consistently than any other line since Shawn Elliot arrived in Columbia, but they will face a tough test this weekend.
Clemson’s defensive front has been impressive all year, led by defensive end Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford. Guard Ronald Patrick admitted that he has been impressed with the Tiger’s front four all year and looks forward to the challenge. Though while the Clemson defense looks stout at 20.3 points allowed per game, the Tigers faced two FCS schools and played a significantly weaker schedule that the Gamecocks. Against opponents that were ranked at any point during the year, Clemson has given up no fewer than 27 points.
This is good news for a physical South Carolina team that is running its offense to perfection and record-setting success. Controlling the trenches will allow the Gamecocks to control the run game, which will allow them to control the clock and limit the scoring opportunities for a very good offense.
Offensively, Chad Morris never has a down year. Senior quarterback and preseason Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd is completing 67% of his passes for more than 3,200 yards and 29 interceptions. He is the lynch pin for an offense that averages 515 yards and 42 points per game, including 339 through the air.
Sammy Watkins has been the primary target of Boyd for several years now and is having another good year with 1,144 yards on 78 catches and a team high ten touchdowns. Where last year the Tigers had Nuk Hopkins to balance take pressure off Watkins, 6-foot-5 junior Martavis Bryant has emerged as the clear number two receiver. With 38 catches for 782 yards, Bryant has been a matchup nightmare for secondaries all season long.
For an explosive offense like Clemson, the focal point is obviously the passing game. That being said, starting tailback Roderick McDowell has emerged as a solid running back, accruing 845 yards on 163 carries this season. While still a downgrade from Andre Ellington and other Clemson backs of a few years ago, namely C.J. Spiller and James Davis—brother of Mike—, McDowell is still capable of making plays.
South Carolina’s defense has quietly been one of the better defenses in the SEC all season, despite Jadeveon Clowney not having the 26 sacks per game that the pundits were predicting in the preseason. The young but talented group of linebackers that had the unenviable task of replacing five seniors has come on strong and developed into a talented and veteran group, led by true freshman Skai Moore, who also leads the Gamecocks in tackles.
In recent weeks, the Gamecock secondary has started to gel, and the return of safety Brison Williams, bolstering an already hot secondary could be bad news for the Tigers. South Carolina is third in SEC in passing defense (200 ypg), as well as fourth in total defense, has held nine of 11 opponents below their scoring average (per Gamecockcentral) and has downright brutal to Tajh Boyd in the last three years. In his career, Boyd in completing worse than 50% of his passes with two interceptions and only three touchdowns against the Gamecocks and has been sacked 14 times, including 4.5 last year by Clowney.
Saturday’s game is nearly a toss-up, but playing at home, where they own the nation’s longest winning streak and playing a more physical game should give them the advantage. The Clemson offense is dangerous and could strike at any time, but shutting down McDowell and putting pressure on Boyd, who has been known to wilt under pressure, should slow down the Tiger’s offense just enough.
It does not seem reasonable to assume that Clemson, as good as their front four are, will be able to consistently shut down the Gamecock offense and all of its weapons for an entire game. The question will be can they get enough stops. Saturday’s game will likely be decided late and by a few plays.