Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who takes time to read our stuff here at Shakin the Southland. I’m thankful for many things, and having a chance to write about something I have loved since childhood is one of those!
Hate week has come and the Tigers have turned their season around to lock in bowl eligibility and move back into the CFP top 25 with 2 ranked wins in 3 weeks. Now another test awaits. Clemson has not been good on the road this season and only has the win at Syracuse that just fired its head coach. South Carolina has also been very bad on the road but has been much better at home. The Gamecocks have put a little win streak together of their own and now look to try to make it two in a row over the Tigers and secure a bowl berth. There should never be much issue getting motivated for this game, but knowing that it was the hated Gamecocks that ended Clemson’s historic home-winning streak last season makes sending them home for the holidays this year all the more enticing.
Clemson has a lot of advantages in this game, particularly in the most important areas across the lines of scrimmage, but much of that was true last season and the Tigers still made enough mistakes, especially on special teams, to allow the Gamecocks to come back and steal that game. This time the Gamecocks have their home crowd to try to lift them up, and it will be up to Clemson to play poised the way they have done the last few trips to Williams-Brice Stadium.
Both teams have had a slew of injuries to a lot of key components. Clemson enters this game with a perilously thin wide receiver corps. Randall (hand), Collins (plantar facia), Cole Turner (abdomen), and Antonio Williams (foot/toe) are hurt. U of SC has lost its top returning WR, Juice Wells, and played last week with only two scholarship running backs available. Both teams have had to shuffle their offensive lines to account for injuries. There are still plenty of key players left to make things happen, and the Gamecocks have their most important player, Spencer Rattler, still healthy.
Clemson offense vs. U of SC defense: It finally feels like Clemson figured out who it really is on offense now. Phil Mafah and Will Shipley have been the best players on offense going on three seasons now, but how to best deploy them hasn’t always been as easy as it might have seemed going into the season. Clemson’s OL has played much more consistent football since very disappointing efforts against Miami and NC State and allowed the Tigers to crank out over 200 yards rushing in each of the last three contests. Clemson was running the ball just fine in this game last year, but inexplicably went away from the running game in the second half against a lot of cover 1 and cover 0 looks from the Gamecock secondary.
This Gamecock defense isn’t nearly as equipped to play those aggressive coverages this year as they were last year. That doesn’t mean they won’t try to, but they have adopted much more of a “shell” approach in their coverages in recent weeks. I fully expect that to be how they try to defend Clemson this week, looking to force Clemson to execute multiple plays to move the ball and looking for the big mistake that Clemson has made several times this season on offense. The Gamecocks lost some firepower from their defensive front from last season, namely Jordan Birch and Zacch Pickens. Tonka Hemingway is probably their best defensive player, but Clemson has faced and handled better defensive fronts from Notre Dame and North Carolina during this current winning streak.
The key has been and will continue to be taking care of the football. While the Gamecock defense won’t be compared to the Steel Curtain anytime soon, they have been opportunistic with takeaways. They were +3 in the turnover margin last week against Kentucky which was just enough to hold off the Wildcats.
Clemson has gotten better and better at staying ahead of the chains and avoiding negative plays. The Tigers held the same UNC defense that sacked Rattler 11 times in week 1 to 0 sacks last week. As long as the Clemson OL can simply cover guys up and allow Mafah and Shipley to get going downhill, you can expect at least 3 yards on a run play and often much more than that.
Cade Klubnik hasn’t put up “wow” stat lines during the winning streak, but he’s been more efficient. He’s gotten better about knowing when to scramble and has made some big throws to move the sticks as well. It was nice to see Clemson hit Will Shipley for a big play down the seam last week to show something else a defense will need to account for. Ball security starts with Cade and as long as he takes care of it, things should work out and Clemson’s superior elements should take over as the game goes along. Slot receivers have given the Gamecocks some problems which is good news considering Tyler Brown and Troy Stellato will be Clemson’s best WR options for this game with Beaux Collins out.
Clemson defense vs. U of SC offense: This game is very similar to the last two, where Clemson’s strength is facing the opponent’s strength. Spencer Rattler and Xavier Legette are easily the top two players on this Gamecock team. While South Carolina’s Offensive Line has improved to some degree from the turnstiles we saw in week 1, they are still a major weakness that will have a serious problem dealing with Clemson’s powerful and deep defensive line unit. I mentioned Damonte Capehart in last week’s preview, and he continued to make some huge plays last week. Goodwin likes to line him up in as a 0 technique over the center, and Capehart has embarrassed centers for three weeks running. This is not good news for U of SC who struggled mightily to handle a similar player in Deone Walker for Kentucky. It is even worse news for U of SC that Clemson has Peter Woods, Tyler Davis, Ruke Orhorhoro, Tre Williams, and Payton Page to roll out there as well.
Jeremiah Trotter, Jr. has been named a Butkis Award Finalist and is definitely playing very high level football down the stretch. He nearly had another interception last week and had several big time plays behind the line of scrimmage. Clemson’s linebackers will be keys to containing the scramble plays Rattler will no doubt try to make. Rattler’s ability to juke Trotter and scramble for a TD was a huge play in last year’s game because Clemson had him dead to rights for a sack. Those moments haunt you when you look up and see a 1 point defeat at the end.
I will admit, I’m amazed Rattler has survived this season with the duress he has endured. He’s been sacked and knocked down countless times. I admire his ability to not start throwing off his back foot and other types of things you often see from QBs who get hit a lot. Clemson had the Gamecocks down last year and allowed them off the mat, which absolutely cannot happen in front of their own crowd this time around. Mario Anderson is not Omarion Hampton, but he is a tough back who will punish you if you don’t tackle well. Clemson cannot allow the U of SC to have success with the run and their horizontal quick passes which are extensions of their running game. Make Rattler hold the ball and have to beat Clemson down the field. They might make a play here or there, but the chances are higher that someone will get to Rattler and either sack him or force an errant throw.
Clemson’s secondary is light years better right now than at this point last season. Andrew Mukuba was playing hurt and it showed. Clemson had to play him at well under 100% because even that was better than the depth at the time. Khalil Barnes has been a serious ball hawk who has been around interceptions and fumbles seemingly every game he has played. The Gamecocks absolutely cannot afford to turn the ball over in this game and expect to win.
The matchup many folks are waiting to see will be Xavier Legette vs. Nate Wiggins. I don’t think we will see Wiggins mirror him all over the field as the Gamecocks will no doubt line him up all over the place on Saturday night. It will take a team effort to contain the biggest explosive playmaker the Gamecocks have. Clemson has had some bad moments this year despite playing very good defense overall. NCSU’s only real explosive guy got loose for three big plays in that loss. I’m not buying into all the “is Legette better or worse than Keon Coleman or Tez Walker” stuff. Legette is big, strong, and fast and will play on Sundays. Those types of guys are always a threat, but Clemson fans have to be encouraged by how Wiggins in particular has performed in the primetime moments this season. Avieon Terrell is an emerging star on the other side and will no doubt get tested if the Gamecocks get Legette matched up on him.
Special Teams: This phase was an unmitigated disaster for Clemson in last year’s Palmetto Bowl. I often say that upsets usually feature some kind of swing play or two from this phase. All of Clemson’s losses this season have had at least one very poor moment from the Special Teams unit. Clemson still has placekicking woes and have had two straight weeks of failed fake punts. This year’s Gamecocks have not been as good in this phase as last year when they essentially led the nation in special teams play, but they no doubt will have some tricks up their sleeves for this game. I would expect anything and everything from faked kicks to exotic punt block schemes. I strongly believe part of Clemson’s fake strategy the last two weeks was to give a team looking to block kicks a lot more to think about in their preparation. It is a lot easier to scheme up blocks if you don’t think the other team is going to fake a kick.
I’m largely a fan of aggressive play from coaches, but I strongly criticized the decision to try a rooskie type return in last year’s game when Clemson had built a solid lead and were having success running the football. Phil Mafah fumbled, the Gamecocks recovered, and Clemson lost its ability to tighten the grip on the game. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the risk/reward just didn’t add up for me on that call. Clemson needs to stay solid in this area and not give the Gamecocks opportunities to grab momentum or set up their offense on a short field.
Overall: I can see a path for the Gamecocks to win, but it will take some Clemson turnovers. It is so hard to predict those off script moments. While both teams are banged up, Clemson has superior depth and a particularly dangerous freshman class who have risen to the limelight in the latter portion of the season. Rattler is the X-factor and is capable of playing hero ball like we saw last season. Having a dude at QB can always level the field as we saw back when Clemson upset superior FSU and Tennessee teams behind Charlie Whitehurst or when Woodrow Dantzler carried a very, very limited roster on his back in 2001. Clemson has not given up 30 or more points without a defensive score all season. Clemson just needs to get to 28 or better and this will be a win, and a very satisfying one at that!
U of SC: 17