Clemson (10-1, #6 in the nation) will invade Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday for their annual battle with the South Carolina Gamecocks (9-2, #10). Although the Tigers hold a sizeable lead in the all-time series (65-41-4), the Gamecocks have won the last four meetings (their longest streak since the 1950s). Not only has Steve Spurrier and his team won recent games, but they have dismantled the Tigers by a combined 124-54 score during the streak.
Due to the success of both the Palmetto programs, this marks an historic matchup in the rivalry. The two squads enter ranked in the top 10 for the first time and the winner gives themselves an excellent chance at being selected for a BCS Bowl.
So, what must the Tigers do to upset their rivals in Columbia? Let’s take a look at the top three keys to the game.
1) Keep Boyd Clean
You better protect your quarterback when playing against Jadeveon Clowney and company. Although the future first-round pick has only 2 sacks on the season, Clemson fans do not need to be reminded of his 4.5 sack performance against the Tigers last year. Although Clowney demands most of an offense’s attention, Clemson better not forget about Kelcy Quarles, who leads the Gamecocks with 7 sacks.
Brandon Thomas will have his hands full with Clowney, but if he and the Tigers can give Tajh Boyd time to throw, he should be able to hit some big plays to dynamic wide receivers Sammy Watkins (1,144 yards) and Martavis Bryant (782 yards).
2) Harass Shaw
Tajh Boyd is the more renowned of the Palmetto Bowl’s quarterbacks, but Connor Shaw is an excellent signal-caller in his own right. This season, Shaw ranks 13th in the nation in passer rating and possess a staggering 20-1 TD-INT ratio. Most people assume that the Gamecocks go as RB Mike Davis (1,112 yards, 6.21 yards per carry) goes; however, South Carolina is actually 1-2 when Davis runs for over 130 yards. In other words, when Davis has a big game, USC usually loses.
Shaw truly runs the Gamecock offense. When he plays well, they win. In order to throw Shaw off his game, the Clemson front four better be on their game. Keep in mind that Shaw is an excellent runner, so defensive ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford better keep contain in addition to providing pressure.
I expect Davis to get his yards, but if Shaw has a big game and Shaq Roland catches the football, then it could be a long day for the Clemson defense.
3) Win the special teams battle
When evenly matched teams play, special teams and big plays will likely decide the outcome. Both teams have excellent field goal kickers and the types of athletes that can take returns the distance, so this will be an interesting matchup.
Sammy Watkins has not housed a kickoff since he was a freshman, but I hold my breath every time he fields it. We all know he is a game breaking athlete, so he may be due for a big return. Moreover, I would not be shocked to see him field a punt or two. For South Carolina, watch out for freshman return specialist Pharoh Cooper. Like Watkins, he has not broken free for a score yet, but he has shown flashes.
If the game comes down to a last second field goal, I would feel great about Clemson’s Chandler Catanzaro kicking it. The senior is 12-13 on the year and is perfect on kicks over 40 yards. USC placekicker Elliot Fry is no slouch, going 14-17 on the year and 6-8 beyond 40; however, Fry is only a freshman, so may be more affected by the moment.
South Carolina and Clemson football ranks among the best rivalries in the country and I expect this to be a nail biter. This may sound odd, but I think this game comes down to a battle of dynamic pass rushers. Vic Beasley is having a tremendous season, garnering 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. And, of course, we all know what Clowney can do when healthy. I expect Clowney to put on a show and remind everyone why he should be the first pick in the NFL draft. Thus, 31-27 Gamecocks.
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