Well folks, it all comes down to this. The 2014 Clemson Tigers have one last chance to do something really relevant this season. It has been a very strange season that started with multiple unknowns on the offensive side of the football. Just as the answers appeared to be coming, injuries took their toll and really set back the progress of the offense. In the end, the 2014 team could be the one remembered for ending the inexcusable losing streak to the coots or a version of the 2010 Tigers who just had an easier schedule. That team was strong on defense but was rendered nearly punchless on offense thanks to critical injuries to Kyle Parker and Andre Ellington. Younger guys like Jaron Brown and Nuk Hopkins showed flashes but were not ready to carry things. It is all sounding pretty familiar at this point. However, that can be put to rest with a win in the Valley on Saturday. That can be settled by kicking the chickens when they are down. We must FINISH THEM!
Clemson offense versus S.C. defense: Well, after Deshaun Watson ripped UNC and NCST apart (and before you say those defenses suck, remember the coot defense sucks as well), I was quite certain they would have very little chance in winning the game this year. The offense just looks like a totally different animal with Watson at quarterback. Guys get more open, the OL seems to block a little better, etc. We've heard all kinds of predictable coach speak that Cole Stoudt can win this game, and I surely hope he can, but I KNOW Watson can win this game and am hoping, hoping, praying, hoping some more, and praying some more that Watson is good to go Saturday (TCI is reporting that he is).
South Carolina is nothing special up front after losing all the difference makers from last year's team. The result has been a myriad of defensive blitzes designed to offset the lack of pass rush ability. One ironic thing about this year's coot defense is it has appeared very similar to the last Kevin Steele outfit from 2011. They have been terrible against the quarterback run game all year long and have been plagued by poor tackling in the secondary in just about every contest. They have also not produced the game changing turnovers that were a staple of their defenses during that 2009-2013 run. Those turnovers helped mask some outings that were otherwise not that great (2012 Tennessee game is a good example of this).
As Dabo pointed out in his presser on Tuesday, the Tigers have been a whopping -12 in the turnover margin during the streak and have been outscored 62-0 off of turnovers in that span. That trend will reverse at some point as most trends do, and it certainly is essential that it happens this year for the Tigers to win. The talent on the field is pretty even with the coots having a big experience edge on offense and the Tigers having a big experience edge on defense.
That turnover trend was largely swung the other direction during the Bowden tenure at Clemson and was a major reason for his success over USCjr. Clemson's last win in 2008 was secured in large part to 4 interceptions thrown by Chris Smelley. That was the last game that Clemson won the turnover margin in this matchup. The biggest thing for either Watson or Stoudt (especially Stoudt) is to protect the football. Do that and the Gamecock defense will struggle to hold the offense down all game.
I expect the Gamecocks to use Brison Williams on Mike Williams and try to force the other Tiger WR's to beat them. It will be important for Scott, Peake, Humphries, and Hopper to win one on one battles that they are sure to get. It is even more important for Chad Morris to earn his paycheck for a change in this game (and if the SMU rumors are true, leave on a positive note). Morris has inexplicably abandoned the run game when it was being effective in both 2012 and 2013. Critical sacks given up on first or second down pass attempts threw the entire offense out of whack in 2012 and 2013.
The other big deal has been the inability of the offense to run up a sufficient play number in this game the last few years. The magic number last year was 75 or more plays run but instead the Tigers ended up running only 57 and getting killed in time of possession for the fourth straight year. This year's offense has been as slow moving as any since the Napier/Dabo mess in 2010, but it is still vital the Tigers eclipse 70 plays on Saturday (if turnovers aren't a major factor). The Gamecock defense has struggled to get off the field this year and Clemson has to keep it that way. It's up to the OL to play with a real purpose and keep the run game on schedule.
The Gamecock formula has been pretty simple the last few years. They aim to control the clock and bait the Tigers into throwing it when they can tee off and pass rush. Here are the sacks given up since 2009: 2, 3, 5, 6, and 5. The Gamecocks will blitz heavily on Saturday, mostly due to necessity but also due to the Tigers struggling to handle that with Stoudt. Watson, however, has been a blitz killer all year long thanks to his mobility and arm talent. He can get the ball out quicker and with more velocity which puts a lot more strain on the secondary to hold up while a blitz is happening. Georgia Tech was scared to death of Watson on blitzes and made sure the safeties were back deep at every chance. UNC tried to attack with some single high defenses and Watson torched them repeatedly. As we all have seen, the WR's seemingly run better routes when Watson is in there because there is a legitimate shot they will get the ball if they are open no matter where that happens. If Stoudt is in the game, the team must stay on schedule and Morris must prepare for the coots jumping the usual quick screen game we have relied upon while Cole has been playing. Lastly, in my mind this game is a win as long as the Tigers take care of the ball and avoid a bad string of 3 and outs.
Clemson defense versus USCjr offense: The Tiger defense really got a raw deal in Atlanta thanks to the offense and turnovers, and it reminded me of the raw deal they got in Cootlumbia last year. The Tigers stuffed Mike Davis and held the chickens to just 318 total yards on 78 plays. However, as mentioned before, one of the major factors in this deplorable streak has been the discrepancy of plays run between the two teams. Since 2009, the Tigers have averaged just 60 plays a game to the coots' 77. Ironically, the highest play total in that span was the 2010 debacle when the offense got to 62 plays while producing a pitiful 251 yards and just 7 points. The blame for the play issue rests with both units, as the offense's HUNH approach gives the ball back too quickly when it isn't working (and sometimes even when it scores quickly). Meanwhile, the defense has struggled mightily to get the coots off the field on third down during the streak. USCjr was 10-19 on third down in 2013, 11-21 on third down (and 1-1 on 4th) in 2012, 8-18 on third down in 2011 (2-2 on 4th), etc. Clemson has had one of the best third down defenses in the nation the last two seasons and it is past time it plays that way in the most important game of the year.
Spurrier is one of the greatest offensive minds in college football history, so some credit certainly goes to that in this streak. He has found the weaknesses in the Tiger defense and exploited it consistently. His move to go with Dylan Thompson and feature the drop back passing game in 2012 was particularly genius as the Tigers had worked all week on zone read and Conner Shaw. Spurrier knew if he protected the QB against a then-suspect Tiger pass rush that the Tiger secondary had some issues, particularly Darius Robinson. Even when the Tiger DB's were in position that year, they failed to make the play on three should-have-been interceptions. All three of those missed opportunities came on drives the coots would eventually score on.
Last year, the two cracks in the armor were Shaw's scrambling/running and the safeties in coverage and both were exploited. The good news this year is the Tiger defense is as complete as it has been since 1991. It can pressure with a four man rush, it can cover man to man on the outside, and the safety play is vastly improved from 2013. However, Venables knows that this defense isn't totally bulletproof and should anticipate how Spurrier will try to attack it. Of course, it will all start with handling the run game with Davis and Wilds. Grady Jarrett will once again be called upon to dominate the center of the coot offensive line (which has been its weakest point most of the year). If I'm Venables and Brooks, I'm playing Jarrett as much as he can handle it. We can't afford to take a chance of a series without him.
The Beasley/Lawson/Crawford/Barnes combinations need to win on drop back situations. The Tiger blitzes were largely ineffective in 2012 mainly due to Spurrier seeming to know exactly when and where they were coming from. Hopefully the team has worked hard on disguising the looks this week in preparation. Dylan Thompson has taken some beatings this year and the coots are a knock-out shot to #17 away from wishing they had a Cole Stoudt on the team.
The biggest matchup worry for me is dealing with the dynamic Pharoh Cooper. He will largely line up in the slot so it won't be Peters or Alexander on him but Wiggins, Kearse, Smith, or potentially Martin Jenkins who appears to be ready to return to action this week. It will be a very interesting chess match to see how Spurrier and Venables try to counter each other as well as what wrinkles each will bring to the table. I feel strongly we will see at least one trick play from the Gamecocks. This offense is as complete a unit as the Tigers have seen this year in terms of running and passing, but if the Tigers can finally deliver a beating to the quarterback in this game the chances to make some big plays will be there.
Spurrier is not the biggest fan of max protection and will be more willing to run deeper routes that take longer to develop than most of the opponents Clemson has faced this year. His failure in the NFL was largely due to getting his quarterbacks beat to death. The opportunities for sacks are going to be there should the Tigers handle the run game like it should. When the Gamecocks faced similar defensive fronts to the Tigers in Missouri and Florida, they really struggled to move the ball and score more than 20, so Clemson can certainly do the same.
Special Teams: The biggest unknown in these types of games is special teams. Nobody saw the kicking game meltdowns coming in the Coot-Florida game that allowed USCjr to steal that game. Nobody saw Adam Humphries and the punt return unit falling apart in Cootlumbia last year. Blocked kicks, missed kicks, big returns, muffed returns, etc., can all swing this game in either direction. Both teams have had a few bright spots on special teams (Clemson versus Louisville and USC versus Florida), and both have had meltdowns (Clemson versus UGA and FSU, USC versus Vandy). All I can do is just keep the fingers crossed that the Tiger units don't flinch first.
Overall: I've seen a lot of pessimism about this game and there are certainly reasons to be gun shy after seeing the offense with Stoudt and remembering the events of this rivalry in recent years. However, I choose to be confident. Clemson has turned the tide on the lines of scrimmage in this matchup (as evidenced by the 2 yards per play advantage seen last year and only losing by 14 despite a 6-0 turnover margin). Both teams feature strength on strength and weakness on weakness, but I feel strongly that Watson is going to play and will be the difference in the game. Guys like Kalon Davis, David Beasley, and Reid Webster can erase a lot of painful memories of OL breakdowns by being good on Saturday. This senior class has been a very good one, and it can separate itself from last year's group by breaking the streak. It is 90% mental at this point and it is past time to get this done. Think positive, tailgate like a champ, and bring the noise on Saturday because the buck stops here.