CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson’s offense hasn’t been shut down often in coordinator Chad Morris’ two seasons. The Tigers’ 34-13 loss last year to rival South Carolina was one of those times.
Clemson managed 153 yards, by far the fewest in Morris’ 25 games. Quarterback Tajh Boyd was 11 of 29 for 83 yards and Sammy Watkins dropped a sure touchdown pass early on that Morris believes might have swung momentum Clemson’s way. Instead, the Tigers struggled to muster any offense against a South Carolina’s defense that was ranked third in the nation.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of pretty out of it, I’ll tell you that,” Morris said Monday.
Still, Morris said he won’t dwell on last year’s struggles when No. 12 Clemson (10-1) faces the 13th-ranked Gamecocks (9-2) at Death Valley on Saturday night. The Tigers are seeking to stop South Carolina’s three-game win streak in the series.
Clemson is on an offensive roll unmatched in school history.
The Tigers lead the Atlantic Coast Conference and are sixth nationally at 535 yards a game. Boyd leads the league in total offense and is second in passing. Last week Clemson piled up 754 yards in a 62-48 win over North Carolina State – two yards shy of the program’s all-time record set against Wake Forest in its national championship season of 1981.
For plenty of Clemson fans, those achievements won’t mean anything without taking down the Gamecocks.
South Carolina’s defense a year ago featured a pair of first-round NFL selections in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Melvin Ingram.
The Gamecocks are also led by a new coordinator in Lorenzo Ward, who was promoted by Steve Spurrier after longtime coordinator Ellis Johnson left last December to become head coach at Southern Miss.
Morris said South Carolina’s secondary plays more man-to-man defense as the Gamecocks try and keep the pressure on up front with a defensive line led by sophomore star Jadeveon Clowney.
It’ll be up to Clemson’s improving offensive line to give Boyd a chance to complete passes to Tigers’ dynamic wide receivers Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins.
“I’ve heard the name Clowney for a long time,” Tigers right tackle Gifford Timothy said.
Morris has heard it a lot as well, especially from Tiger fans worried the Gamecocks defensive end will cause havoc in the backfield.
He said he’ll stick to the plan he’s followed all season long, preparing his players to perform at their peak each game while blocking out the outside distractions.
“We’ve got to be who we are. You can’t do something and be somebody that you’re not,” Morris said. “If you do, you’ve got a problem.”
The Tigers were clicking last Saturday against the Wolfpack. Boyd passed for 426 yards, ran for 103 yards, and accounted for eight touchdowns — five passing, three rushing — against North Carolina State. Boyd was named the ACC’s offensive back of the week Monday.
Center Dalton Freeman, starting his 47th straight game, was the league’s offensive lineman of the week.
Despite surpassing 700 yards for the second time in the past three games, Morris believed his team could’ve done better offensively. The line was slow on its footwork early, while Hopkins and Watkins did not have strong games, Morris said.
“That’s something I’m going to challenge those guys on this week,” he said.
The stakes are high for both teams. A Clemson victory would mean the team’s first 11-win season since going 12-0 in 1981. The Tigers also have a chance at an at-large BCS bid, something that would disappear with a loss.
South Carolina is seeking its second-straight 10-win season, a first in program history.
“It’s a huge game, maybe one of the biggest games since I’ve been here of our rivalry series,” Spurrier said.
Morris doesn’t want his players worried about what happened last year. It’s a different group with a different focus and demeanor. “It’s very unfair to compare this year to last year’s team,” he said.
Boyd has improved his game, becoming a stellar runner this season instead of a year ago when he stood in the pocket “like a concrete deer” against South Carolina, Morris said.
The quarterback sounds ready, too, weary of losing to South Carolina.
“I think it’s a must-win situation for us. It is one of those deals where it has to happen,” Boyd said.