Clemson, SC – South Carolina’s opening game plan was obvious and brilliant. Take advantage of your best position group (WRs) against Clemson’s thinnest group (DBs). Dictate the game, force them to cover space, and pray for stops on defense. Jake Bentley’s nine yard scoring pass on the opening drive to Deebo Samuel was the first touchdown Clemson surrendered in the opening quarter all year.
Their only problem? Clemson could score points as well, but with more consistency and more variety. Even worse? The Tigers knew it too. After Clemson’s second drive that ended with its second touchdown, Trevor Lawrence stared down the Gamecock sideline in a display of confidence.
One could have mistaken this 56-35 shootout for a Big XII conference game, as the Gamecocks posted 600 yards of offense (510 passing) to the Tigers 744 yards (351 rushing, 393 passing). Clemson averaged 8.1 yards per play to South Carolina’s 8.0 yards per play. The main offensive difference? South Carolina was 2-4 in the red zone, while Clemson was 7-8 in the red zone.
The Gamecocks’ plan continued to work as they marched through Clemson’s defense all the way to the three-yard line. Faced with fourth and goal on the three, Coach Muschamp left Bentley and co. on the field to tie the game up. Fortune favors the bold – usually. This time, the pass in Tanner Muse’s direction was deflected and the Tigers’ third drive started inside the five-yard line for the second time.
After the game, Coach Muschamp said that “inboth situations, I told [offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon] he had four downs. We needed to go score, knowing our situation defensively.”
Once again the mismatch between the Tiger offense and the Gamecock defense was evident. They managed to top their previous 95-yard drive by crafting a 97-yard drive that ended in Christian Wilkins running a toss play into the end zone and striking the Heisman pose.
Typically, situations like this were when Clemson’s momentum would overwhelm opponents and the Tigers would pile on the points. Unlike his first two years facing Clemson, the much improved Jake Bentley was ready to go tit for tat once again. The next two Gamecock drives ended with 67 and 75-yard touchdown passes by Jake Bentley to Kiel Pollard and Deebo Samuel.
Brent Venables’ night wasn’t getting better – it was getting worse. Afterwards he stated that “I’m disappointed in our performance tonight…not with everyone. I thought South Carolina and Jake [Bentley] had a good plan, and they played well. Obviously, I didn’t coach them very well tonight. I’m very embarrassed about different things that happened there tonight, and obviously, it’s my responsibility to get our guys ready”, and that “We kept letting guys get inside of us. It’s not really complicated.”
Coach Swinney gave South Carolina credit for their execution and game plan with ninja formations, but he was also concerned with the defense’s performance as he ranked it among the worst back end performances in his tenure.
In between the Gamecocks’ quick two scores, Clemson posted yet another scoring drive that featured a 32-yard rush by Trevor Lawrence and a 24-yard rush by Adam Choice (whom also punched in the two yard scoring run).
Clemson’s offensive momentum mysteriously disappeared near the end of the first half. Clemson’s next drive ended in a Will Spiers punt, but backup linebacker JD Davis intercepted Bentley’s pass and denied the Gamecocks the opportunity to tie the game heading into halftime.
After an Amari Rodgers touchdown catch was negated by an OPI call, the Tigers struggled through the end of the half and Greg Huegel missed a 39-yard field goal wide right to keep the score 28-21 heading into halftime.
The Gamecocks’ second half performance couldn’t match their first half heroics, and they couldn’t catch the breaks in the second half that they did in the first. Clemson rediscovered their offensive mojo from the first half as they put together consecutive scoring drives to go up 42-21.
While South Carolina would never recover their momentum, they continued to fight throughout the game. A fifteen play Gamecock drive ended on a failed fourth down conversion near the end of the third quarter, and Clemson scored on the responding 98-yard drive to make the score 49-21 early in the fourth quarter.
Deebo Samuel caught his third score of the night on a 32-yard catch to cut Clemson’s deficit to three scores (49-21) with nine minutes left in the game. Each team scored one more touchdown to make the final score 56-35.
While there was less pregame tension than in previous years, this Palmetto Bowl was an interesting game that reflected the state of affairs in the Tigers’ and Gamecocks’ football programs. Most thought that Clemson would win handily and to some degree they did – but that neglects to tell the story of the whole game.
South Carolina’s defense was destined to struggle from the outset – with numerous defensive players missing the game due to injuries, stopping Clemson’s offensive juggernaut was an almost impossible task if the Tigers didn’t make mistakes. For their part, Clemson didn’t make mistakes – in fact they had three scoring drives of 95 yards or more for the first time in school history.
The addition of Bryan McClendon has revitalized the Gamecock offense and helped offset their defensive struggles. Bentley’s Gamecocks were lightyears ahead of the lifeless Roper coordinated offense of the last two years that scored 17 points on Clemson in two games combined.
The Gamecocks’ receiving trio stressed Clemson’s secondary for sixty minutes, while McClendon’s well designed plays and Bentley’s execution gave other teams a blueprint on how to challenge Clemson’s defense.
South Carolina put forth a valiant effort with a solid offensive game plan trying to compensate for a severely injured defense. More than anything, that speaks to the standard Clemson football has set: a different level of dominance and skill – or to quote Coach Swinney’s motto: “Best is the Standard.”