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November 26, 2011

USC-Clemson: Key battles

GamecockCentral.com breaks down the key matchups for South Carolina's game against Clemson. At what positions will the game be decided?

Jay Wooten vs. Sammy Watkins
Steve Spurrier said it all week - "We can't let special teams beat us." Ever since the Arkansas game, when USC's momentum from a pick-six lasted less for a minute due to the ensuing kickoff return for a touchdown, USC's problems with kickoffs and kickoff coverage have raised Spurrier's blood pressure. Naturally, with one of the most exciting players in the country waiting for kickoffs tonight, the problem could be exacerbated. Watkins only has one touchdown on return this year, but is averaging 26.4 yards per return and the Gamecocks' coverage team, for lack of a better term, has been afraid to tackle. It falls to Wooten, a senior playing his last game at Williams-Brice Stadium, to give the kickoff coverage team as good a chance as possible to get around Watkins and bring him down. Whether that includes high pooch kicks to the sideline, as he did against Florida, or low line drives to the upback, as he did against The Citadel, remains to be seen. What doesn't seem to be an option is booting it into the end zone. Wooten only has four touchbacks in 60 tries this year, and Watkins has never been shy about bringing a kick out of the end zone anyway.
Melvin Ingram vs. Tajh Boyd
One of the most re-played moments of last year's USC-Clemson game was when Cliff Matthews charged unchecked around Clemson's left tackle and Boyd, rolling right, never knew the pressure was coming. Matthews could have simply blasted Boyd in the back or tackled him around the legs, but that wouldn't have been natural for a senior in-state guy who was playing his last rivalry game. No, Matthews leaped to grab Boyd around the helmet and slam him to the turf, making Matthews more of a standout in USC history and tagging Boyd with the nickname (from USC's fans, anyway) "Bobblehead." With no Matthews this year and Jadeveon Clowney banged up (although he practiced on Thursday and should play), it falls to Ingram to see if he can repeat Matthews' moment. Ingram has had an outstanding year, and he has one regular-season game left - his Senior Day. The Gamecocks' leader in sacks and tackles for loss, Ingram needs to be in Clemson's backfield today so often that he's receiving junk mail. Boyd can move, but he'll stay in the pocket to give his speedy receivers time to operate; Ingram can take advantage of that.
Shaq Wilson vs. Andre Ellington
Because of some injuries and because the Tigers' passing game has been so strong, Ellington has taken a back seat this year when it comes to all-stars. He's still an outstanding tailback, though, rushing for 871 yards in 10 games with nine touchdowns. He'll handle most of the load today - while Mike Bellamy has three TDs and 324 yards, he's prone to fumble and often is out-of-place when trying to line up - and the Gamecocks, playing for the pass, have got to be ready for the draw play and most likely, Ellington coming out of the backfield for a quick toss. Wilson, playing middle linebacker (with Rodney Paulk), has to be ready. He's had two outstanding games against some running teams and needs to have a third tonight. Despite some middling statistics, Wilson is fourth on the team with 44 tackles and has four for loss.
Rokevious Watkins vs. Andre Branch
Another senior who is playing his last home game today, Watkins is trying to complete his career with a perfect 3-0 mark against Clemson. As left tackle and protecting quarterback Connor Shaw, many are hoping he's saved his best for last. Giving Shaw room to throw after a strong game last week is paramount, since the more options the Gamecocks can throw at the Tigers, the better. Branch, the Tigers' leading tackler from his end spot, will no doubt be trying to get past Watkins and flatten Shaw with an official welcome-to-the-rivalry moment. Watkins can't let that happen.
Brandon Wilds vs. Brandon Thompson
Wilds has been outstanding since taking over as USC's tailback, rushing for 100 yards or more three times in four games. The Gamecocks will start by trying to get the run game established, and that's the responsibility of Wilds (and his line) to get through the holes and start galloping downfield. Thompson, at defensive tackle, is second on the Tigers with 65 tackles and will be standing in the way. Wilds has to make sure the target that Thompson locks on is only there for a second, and leave Thompson staring at the back of his jersey instead of the front.
Connor Shaw vs. History
USC quarterbacks, since there haven't been championships or bowl games or Heisman trophies, have many times been judged on what they do against Clemson as to where they place in rivalry history. Yards and touchdowns in the regular season matter, sure, but can they beat the Tigers? Shaw gets his first chance today in a good situation - the Gamecocks, despite an awful season in terms of injuries, are just as physical and athletic as the Tigers and can give Clemson fits in the areas where it is weak. Now, Shaw has been a fine signal-caller since he took over, and he's mostly been a game manager - as in, doing enough to not lose the game even if he didn't necessarily help win it. He may only have to do that today, if the Gamecocks' defense and running game have been as good as they have been. But there needs to be that one play, where Shaw can drop back and throw the deep ball, and give USC and a fired-up Williams-Brice crowd something to admire. It came last week a couple of times, when Shaw turned on the jets for a 60-yard touchdown scamper, and when he bombed for the corner on a prayer, with his best option (Alshon Jeffery making the impossible look possible one more time. It's his ball, and his show - time to take one more step toward being a true Gamecock quarterback.

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