The No. 15 Tigers ran 23 fewer plays, gained 207 fewer yards and scored 28 fewer points than they averaged all year in Saturday’s 27-17 loss to South Carolina.
The Gamecocks have done similar things to the Tigers to earn only their second four-game winning streak of the 116-year-old rivalry. Clemson has scored 17 points or less just 11 times in the past four seasons, and four of those have been against the Gamecocks. The Tigers have averaged 414 yards a game since 2009, but gained an average of 248 yards against their in-state rivals.
The reason has been simple, said South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. The Gamecocks play a more physical style in the tougher Southeastern Conference, and Clemson comes in unprepared after facing eight Atlantic Coast Conference defenses, said Ward, who has coached at least a part of the defense for the four-year winning streak.
Just look at sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney pushed hard to get the local high school star to play for the Tigers, but he came to South Carolina instead. After his 4½-sack performance Saturday, he has 5½ sacks in two games and promised Gamecocks fans they would never lose to their rivals again as long as he is on the field.
At just about the same time, Swinney was upstairs apologizing to fans and his seniors.
“It’s the ACC versus the SEC. Everybody knows where the most physical ball comes out of – the SEC. We came out trying to be really physical, push them around and show them who was tougher,” Clowney said.
Clowney’s sacks made him the leader in the nation with 21½ tackles for loss this season. He’s also the leader of a defense that ranks 13th in the country and simply shut down the nation’s eighth-ranked offense.
Clemson’s offensive line didn’t allow a sack in two previous games against Maryland and North Carolina State, who each came in as the ACC leader in sacks. The Gamecocks got to Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd six times Saturday.
“We got down and they just pinned their ears back and rushed the quarterback, so it was tough. Our offense is built a lot on being able to get into a rhythm and we were not able to do that,” said Clemson center Dalton Freeman, who will leave school without ever beating the Gamecocks.
Boyd has taken the brunt of the defensive pressure. Since replacing Kyle Parker in the third quarter of Clemson’s 29-7 loss in 2010, he has completed 32 of 71 passes for 339 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has been sacked 14 times and has rushed 36 times for a total of minus-15 yards.
It was a regression for Boyd, who set school records this season with 34 touchdown passes and a total of 43 TDs running and passing.
“We were in a situation where we didn’t have much time and tried to force things. We pressed too much,” Boyd said.
With his starting quarterback and running back out injured, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was glad to turn to his defense, as he has often during his eight years with the Gamecocks.
“I’m really, really proud of our defense,” Spurrier said. “That’s one of the best offenses in the country, and we held them down fairly well to 17 points.”
Perhaps the best way to put the shift in the rivalry into perspective is to talk to DeVonte Holloman. The South Carolina senior has picked off passes against Clemson in 2009, 2010 and 2012 and is part of the first senior class to leave the Gamecocks without losing to the Tigers.
“History doesn’t really have anything to do with anybody that’s here now,” Holloman said. “We’re trying to start our own history, so whatever happened before we got here, we threw that out the window.”