We traded questions and answers with Gamecock Man from Garnet and Black Attack heading into this weekend's big game down in Columbia. We appreciate these guys taking the time to field our questions and also give us a few questions regarding Clemson. You can read my response to their inquiries via this link if you so choose. This should be fairly obvious, but each STS question is in bold below, GABA response immediately below each question.
1. Conner Shaw's play this season has been hit or miss with the Florida game being a very good indication of this inconsistency. Shaw missed a couple wide open receivers throughout the game but was able to complete a difficult 4th down pass for the Gamecocks' critical lone TD that night. What would you say is causing this inconsistency? Are there situations that fare better or worse for the Flowery Branch, GA Senior?
I'm not necessarily sure I'd call Shaw's play inconsistent, at least not unpredictable. It's possible that nerves were an issue against Florida; the team seemed to play tight in general on a night when many players were probably thinking about the outcome of the UGA-AU game. Otherwise, there are two issues with Shaw. One, he's been injured since the Tennessee game. The injury effects his mobility, which remains his biggest weapon, even in a year when his pocket presence and throwing accuracy have generally improved. Second of all, Shaw struggles against taller defensive fronts. As a relatively short QB who hasn't consistently shown the trust in timing routes that Spurrier wants out of his QBs (he's been better on the latter issue this year than in years past, granted), Shaw can be thrown off his game by tall defensive fronts that make an effort to limit his downfield vision. Tennessee's Daniel McCullers had a lot of success limiting Shaw's vision in the Vols' upset win over the Gamecocks.
For Clemson, I think it's also important that the Tigers don't allow Carolina to be balanced offensively. This wasn't true against Florida because of the accuracy issues you mentioned, but generally, Shaw does much better passing when the defense is on its heels against the run, like many quarterbacks. If Shaw, Mike Davis, and company are running the ball effectively, it may be a long evening for the Clemson defense. Of course, Clemson has proven to have a solid run defense this year, so the Clemson defensive front against the USC rushing attack should be fun to watch.
2. Clemson fans are very leery of facing a mobile quarterback with a lot of that anxiety stemming from issues bottling up Carolina's QB the past couple years. Should we expect Shaw to be the runner we've seen in the past and has he taken more precautions to avoid taking the big hit/enduring the injuries as has happened in past seasons?
Shaw has suffered two injuries on the season, one a shoulder injury that ended his game against Central Florida, the second a knee sprain that forced him out against Tennessee. Shaw came back the next week better than ever after the first injury, but the second has lingered a bit. Even after having had a few weeks to heal, the knee still appeared to be bothering him against Florida. Part of it may have been Florida's excellent overall defensive speed, but Shaw looked a step slower than usual in that game and appeared tentative at times. The good news for Carolina fans is that he looked much closer to his old self against Coastal last week. CCU and Clemson obviously aren't the same type of deal, but I am optimistic that Shaw will be a threat running the read-option, as well as to scramble when the pocket breaks down.
3. South Carolina's Mike Davis has emerged as one of the best running backs in the nation this season while SCar's offensive line has remained fairly healthy all year. Can you comment on (A) Davis' running style and (B) Specifics of the offensive line play and how that has affected this offense in '13?
Davis has been a breakout star nationally this year, but you have to remember that Rivals rated him the seventh-best back in the nation in 2012 and 63rd overall. Players like T.J. Yeldon, Todd Gurley, and Keith Marshall may get all the attention, but Davis was only a small step below those guys in terms of perceived talent. Davis is a fairly complete back as a runner. He's perceived as being a power back--he's got good vision, makes good cuts, is hard to take down, and oftentimes surprises you with his ability to get a couple of extra yards when you think he's going to be taken down for a short gain. His speed is what has surprised people. He's broken several long runs on the season, including against good competition. His top-end speed compares well enough to most DB's, and DB's aren't going to find it easy to take him down in the open field.
The concern about Davis coming out of high school was catching the ball, but he's proven better than advertised in that regard. Based on what I've seen from Clemson, I would expect Carolina to dial up some screen passes to Davis if Clemson plays the run overly aggressively.
The Carolina offensive line is likely the best we've had during the Spurrier era. It's been particularly good blocking the run, where we've been able to open some solid holes even against good defensive fronts. Where the line struggles is blocking the pass. Tackles Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell can be beaten by good defensive ends.
4. Steve Spurrier sometimes gets the urge to throw the football when it is not necessary (i.e., Carolina is running the ball just fine). I've noticed that South Carolina has been extremely successful lining up in the I-formation and just running the football then inexplicably formations are altered and strategy shifts. Is this "itch" Spurrier has to throw the football a figment of my imagination or have you noticed the same and what impact does it have, if any, on the SCar offense?
I think there's a bit of truth to that perception. Arguably, this "itch" cost Carolina the Tennessee game, where at the very least, more running on the last few Carolina drives would have burnt more time off the clock. Tennessee was defending the run aggressively by that point in the game (Davis had gone off for a big third quarter), so Spurrier had some strategic reason to try to throw the ball. However, Shaw hadn't had his best day throwing the ball, and the line wasn't protecting him well. Why not line up in the I and see if you can open up enough of a hole for Davis to have some room to work? He's proven to be good enough to earn yardage in tight spaces. Then, what really surprised me in that game is that when Shaw goes out with the knee injury, Dylan Thompson comes in and we finally start running the ball, despite Thompson having shown good down-field passing skills many times in his career.
All of that said, I still generally think Spurrier is an excellent playcaller, and the offense he's put on the field this year has been the closest thing to elite that we've seen in his time in Columbia. When things are clicking for him and he's getting the right kind of play from his quarterback, he's shown that he can roll up a lot of points this year.
5. A lot of the spotlight goes to JD Clowney. The media (mostly ESPN) has been dogging the All-American all season. What are your thoughts on his play and how the media has covered him this season and has this had any impact on this football team?
Morale-wise, I don't think it's had any effect. If anything, I've been impressed with the leadership qualities Clowney has shown this year. Clowney is not known for having the personality of your classic field leader, but when it's been time to rally the troops, he's done his part this season in the locker room from everything I've observed.
I do think the way Clowney has been schemed has had a strategic effect on the team. Clowney is still the same player he was a year ago. When he wants to be, he's impossible to stop in one-on-one situations. However, smart teams have schemed him out of games by doubling him, running away from him, and not running passing plays that take time to develop. Some of those strategies should have opened things up for the other defensive linemen to have a bigger impact, but while we've been strong in the interior of the line (including having a DT lead the team in sacks and TFL), Chaz Sutton on the other end has been a disappointment. Sutton's backup Gerald Dixon has seen his playing time increase and is good at sealing the end against the run, but he's not athletic enough to be an elite pass rusher.
As far as the coverage of Clowney goes, I think it's about what you'd expect. Knowing that the die-hard fans will show up either way, ESPN prefers to generate narratives that will draw interest from the casual observer. They're not keen on subtlety. Annoying, but predictable.
6. Along the lines of Clowney, what have you seen opponents do this season to keep him at bay and what do you suggest Clemson do to avoid having a repeat performance of last season's sack-fest? What impact does Clowney have on the performance of those around him, particularly his fellow defensive linemen?
Double-teaming can work, but based on what I've seen, I'm not sure Clemson has the right personnel at TE or tailback. The other thing a lot of teams have done is to get the ball out quickly on passing plays. You might have seen this analysis that suggested how much faster teams get the ball out against Clowney than otherwise. Given that Chad Morris is known for fielding a good short passing game, I would expect Clemson will seek to take that route.
Another thing that jumps out at me about Clemson is that it seems to me that when he gets rattled, Tajh doesn't move very decisively in the pocket. I remember that he kind of ran into a couple of sacks last year when he probably could have thrown the ball away, or run in a more decisive manner. I've seen this in other big games Clemson has played, too. When a play breaks down and you're going against a good defensive front, you can't dance around waiting for something to open up, because it's a matter of seconds before you get hit. It goes without saying that Clemson needs the Tajh that showed up against Georgia and LSU to show up in this game, as opposed to the Tajh who has struggled the past three years against the Gamecocks.
7. Carolina's defense does appear to be as good this season as in years past. I have seen issues in the secondary all season and we saw chunks of yards given up on the ground several times this year. Is this a product of Whammy Ward as a defensive coordinator or simply an issue that derives from the loss of linebackers and safeties from last season?
I think Ward is doing a good job. There have been times when I've wondered why we weren't running more aggressive man coverage schemes (teams want to get the ball out quickly because of Clowney--why give them the quick throws to the receivers?), and I've wondered a bit about some of the personnel decisions (would like to see more Dixon at the end opposite Clowney, and have wondered about playing Golightly over Diggs at spur, although Golightly has come on lately). Some have also questioned that we encourage the defensive line to play aggressively despite not having good enough play at linebacker to compensate. Overall, though, Ward is dealing with the cards he was dealt. Ellis Johnson and his staff dropped the ball by allowing a situation to develop where we were forced to run with a two deep at the linebacker positions that had literally no experience coming into the season. It's unbelievable that we let that happen. The good news is that as the linebackers have matured, we've gotten much better. It's a talented group of players, just inexperienced. That's helped a lot, particularly against the run, where they've begun to fill gaps and tackle better, which has taken pressure off the linemen. I don't think we've been too bad against the pass. There were some coverage breakdowns early on, but they've gotten better as the season has progressed, too. I'd say we're about where I hope we'd be defensively. We knew we'd struggle early on.
8. Every year Clemson fans hear the term "SEC battle-tested" prior to the Carolina game. This season I'd argue the East is not the power division it once was and South Carolina was fortunate in its scheduling against teams from the West (Arkansas and Mississippi State). Does that adversely affect the Gamecocks (will they be less battle-tested / tough than they were last season because they didn't have to go to Baton Rouge or play a Top-5 Florida team) or does this help South Carolina by possibly avoiding injury?
Well, you're obviously right that the East is down, and that Carolina may not be as "battle-tested" as it has been in years past. Still, Sagarin, Football Outsiders, etc., give USC a sizeable edge over Clemson in SOS. That probably says more about Clemson's schedule than USC's, but I do think you have to remember that while Florida and Tennessee stunk this year and Carolina didn't play any good teams from the West, we did win road games at Central Florida and Mizzou. I'm not sure how good UCF really is, but Missouri is a legitimately excellent team. In any event, to the extent that USC's SOS is definitely not what it has been some years, my only thought is that I like that Spurrier makes a point of keeping his team from developing a big head, and that in the past the schedule has driven his point home as we've had a lot of tough games and not many blowouts. This year, maybe that won't have been the case to the same extent.
On the other hand, the East's Big Three has been down to some extent since 2009, which is the year USC began the streak against Clemson. I remember several years prior to 2009 when USC had a top-five SOS due in part to UF, Tenn., and UGA all being very good. It sure didn't help us too much against Clemson back in the old days, so maybe there's not as much to it as we think.
9. Clemson has been in relatively few close games this season (Clemson's biggest scare was in the opener against UGa-though there were a few times it was less than comfortable early in the fouth quarter-and the lone loss to FSU was out of hand early). South Carolina had a couple memorable games that came down to the last couple plays. First and foremost, do you think the game against Clemson will be close until the end and, if so, how do you think experiences Carolina has from earlier this year will affect the outcome of the football game?
If there's anything to the "battle-tested" mantra, it's that teams that are tested frequently aren't likely to lose their cool in close games. My feeling on this game is that if USC puts in a good performance and Tajh plays like he did against UGA and LSU, it'll be close at the end. Tajh seems like the key to me. Last year, USC won because Tajh played poorly down the stretch and Clemson's defense couldn't get Carolina's offense off the field on third down. This year, Clemson's defense looks better, but USC's offense is also better, so I think we can assume USC will again score in that 27-34 range. Clemson obviously has enough weapons on offense to keep up, but Tajh has to play better, and if the game is close, he has to finish like he did against LSU--only this time, the pressure is all the more on because he's playing on the road against a rival he's never beaten. Therefore, based on past results, I would say I feel USC has the advantage in knowing how to close out a close game.