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November 25, 2012

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Clemson



NO. 13 SOUTH CAROLINA 27, NO. 12 CLEMSON 17

THE GOOD

HE SPITS HOT FIRE: Dylan Thompson. Dylan Thompson. When Steve Spurrier told a trio of reporters (I was one of them) before the game that it was probable that Thompson was going to start due to Connor Shaw's bad foot, the Vegas line in favor of Clemson immediately jumped a couple of points and Gamecock Nation swallowed hard. Thompson was a great kid, super-nice, very upstanding about his faith and had a good arm, but was he a quarterback, a winner? This wasn't East Carolina, this was Clemson. Could Thompson not only replicate Shaw's ability to move the pocket around and scramble out of trouble, but hit the short throws as well as the deep throws, plus keep the offense on the field so the Tigers' offense wouldn't be there? In a word, yes. Thompson offered all thanks to God afterward, reading a Bible verse before he answered any questions, and didn't seem to realize the enormity of what he had just done. At USC, an athlete that has just the one big moment, especially against Clemson, is forever canonized. Thompson may just be the best of the bunch. It drew shades of Michael Roth's epic first start in the 2010 College World Series, Roth, like Thompson, an Upstate native. Roth, who was in the stands at Clemson on Saturday, has his face on the Mount Rushmore of Clemson-killers, and Thompson could be joining him. The humble kid from Boiling Springs controlled the game, hit his throws, threw short and long and ended with 310 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He had some big plays, but also realized that the short passes were his friend to run the clock. Then he picked up 20 yards on a quarterback draw when the Gamecocks needed 19. And then said if Shaw started the bowl game, he'd be fine with that. As some Clemson fans remarked on their message boards after the game, "Dylan (Censored) Thompson. Who?"

BENCH STRENGTH: USC has won four straight over Clemson, the last three with different quarterbacks. Just like last year, a backup quarterback won the game. Also just like last year, the backup running back(s) and the point guard off the basketball team played major roles in the win. What's going to happen if the Gamecocks ever play Clemson with a completely healthy team?

LORENZO'S OILERS: Lorenzo Ward's defense gave up some yards, but was overall masterful. In the second half, the high-octane Tigers produced just 19 plays and 91 yards, after a first half where they somewhat struggled, but hit some big, big plays. USC adjusted and began to keep its pressure while also making sure not to over-run plays, staying back and not letting the draws get loose for huge gains. They also sent a message early by playing DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins close to the line of scrimmage early in the game. This was a test for the Fightin' Whammys, and they responded well.

BEASTLY: Four-and-a-half sacks? In one game? That's a career for some people - for Jadeveon Clowney, it's lunch. Look, I saw that kid growing up and felt sorry for all the other players on the field, but even I never saw that. Clowney had some problems with over-running plays early, and getting cut-blocked in the backfield, but he was back on Tajh Boyd's hip pads so much it's like he was being paid to endorse them. He set USC's single-season sack record (13.5 and counting; it was 10) and ended the game with the most brutal sack of Boyd, where he easily swept past the left tackle, zeroed between the "10" on Boyd's back and dropped him like a bad habit. I don't see how he's not a Heisman Trophy contender, and I think it's further balderdash that he's not likely to win the Nagurski, Lombardi or Bednarik awards, or probably not the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award. He changes games, and he's done the last half of the season at less than 100 percent. C'mon, man!

NO LESS IMPORTANT: It was overlooked, but Ace Sanders set USC's single-season punt return yardage record during the game, breaking the old mark set by Dickie Harris way back when. Been quite a while since USC had a consistent threat in the return game.

TAKE THAT, CUZ: Bruce Ellington had an NFL-worthy play, a textbook catch, when he led his man into the corner, broke away, adjusted and caught a back-shoulder touchdown grab. Then he camped in the back of the end zone and ran back and forth until Thompson spotted him for an easy game-clincher. Yeah, despite those media twits saying he'd never be a productive football player, he is one. Dammit.

PICKED ON: Brison Williams stood out like the proverbial sore thumb (which is the only digit without a state title ring these days) on the scouting report. Clemson would throw at him and at him because of all the defenders in USC's secondary, he was the weakest link. But Clowney bull-rushed Boyd and the flustered QB tossed a lob 5 yards short of the intended, and Williams was all alone. He leaped for the pick to set up USC's game-clinching drive.

UGLY AS KATE UPTON: USC's game-clinching drive began well, the Gamecocks dinking and dunking to the Clemson 14-yard-line, and then the trouble started. Facing second-and-7, USC was smacked with illegal substitution. Then Thompson scrambled up the middle and ran for a touchdown, but the laundry on the field was for holding and called back. Then USC put in a trick double-pass, but Clemson sniffed it out, and when Sanders received the screen and prepared to throw, he had no choice but to tuck and run. But on third-and-19, Thompson somehow managed to pop the clutch, shift from neutral to second and run for 20 yards. Then Mike Davis was belted for a loss, then Thompson bought time by running left before having to ditch the ball. And on third-and-goal, Thompson found Ellington for a score. Not exactly the prettiest thing in the world, but those seven points were more beautiful than Jessica Biel serving divorce papers to Justin Timberlake.

REMEMBER ME?: DeVonte Holloman has three interceptions in four games against Clemson. Make that, ex-Clemson commitment DeVonte Holloman. D'oh!

FIND A WAY: USC played a pretty lousy first half, the offense unable to mount a consistent attack due to holding or just bad plays and the defense over-running tackles for loss, yet the Gamecocks only trailed 14-10 at the half. It boded well.

THE KING: Steve Spurrier passed Rex Enright ("Rex" in Latin, yasee) for the most wins in USC history (65 and counting) and did it on a game plan that had to make him cringe. He knew he needed to keep the clock moving to keep the Tigers' offense off the field, so he had to mostly ignore the plays that Clemson's defense was susceptible to - passes over the middle and deep throws. The deep plays were open but Spurrier had to ignore them, to keep the clock moving, so he went side-to-side, even with Thompson having previously been unable to consistently complete them, and run the ball, even though USC's best success at the rush came from holding penalties. He did what had to be done to win. And won again.

FOUR: Clemson's fans love a chant that begins, "1-2-3-4! 1-2-3-4!" Might have to retire that one for a year.



THE BAD

SIEVE: USC's offensive line, featuring the best talent and depth since Shawn Elliott has been at USC, was horrendous on Saturday. Holding penalties, false starts, a personal foul, allowing pressure on Thompson and not opening any kind of holes for Kenny Miles. It's really been the same story all year, so it probably shouldn't have been expected to change overnight, but boy, it was painful to watch sometimes. I'm at a loss to explain why these guys, in the system and with veteran leadership, just can't get the job done. It's mystifying.

SHOULD HAVE BEEN: Jimmy Legree's interception-that-wasn't turned into a pass interference penalty. On the replay, it seemed to be the correct call, as Legree bumped the receiver a quarter-second before he had the ball. But considering he didn't smack the receiver's arm away, and only bumped him, I'd say that he had just as much right at that ball as the receiver. Whatever.

FALLING: USC plummeted right into Clemson's game plan of having to guess on defense, and the Tigers exploited it in the first half. They ran when they were supposed to pass, and passed when they were supposed to run, and USC was off-kilter. Didn't end up being a permanent thing, though.

TWO-MINUTE MADNESS: Trailing 14-10 but with over two minutes to play in the half, USC received the ball and … flopped. Miles ran off-tackle for 5 yards, then Thompson threw incomplete. On third-and-5, he threw another incomplete (on what should have been pass interference). Needing to get into field-goal range, USC couldn't even get a first down.



THE UGLY

IMPATIENCE: Spurrier lost his patience one time, and it nearly cost him. With USC driving and trying to nurse a 20-17 lead, the Gamecocks were at the Clemson 15. The smart play was to play it safe and then kick a field goal, and Spurrier tried, but Davis slipped going around left end for no gain. Then Davis completely whiffed a block and Thompson was sacked for a loss of 8 yards. Again, the smart move was to play it safe and kick, but Thompson threw long for the corner of the end zone. It was intercepted. Those are the kinds of plays that cost ballgames. Didn't here, but still.

TAKE IT TO THE JUNGLE: Previous musings in this space have been devoted to the admiration of D.J. Swearinger, whose emotion for the game produces really strong play most of the time but detriments the other times. Saturday was a detriment. Just after Thompson threw his pick, USC's defense knew it had to get the momentum back. It had to play smart and savvy, denying Clemson a score and making it hard for Boyd to function. So Andre Ellington sweeps around right end, has the first down, and Swearinger greets him with a snot-bubble hit, sending a message. That was fine - it let Ellington know that if he did it again, it was going to hurt worse. But then Swearinger crouched down and woofed at him, just in front of an official, and got a deserved 15 yards for taunting. Just unnecessary and completely stupid for that time of the game. If he'd have turned and done it to the USC sideline, fine. If he'd have motioned to the crowd, fine. But to the player? Not smart in the least. It gave Clemson free yards in a three-point game in the fourth quarter. Did it end up hurting? No. Williams got his pick three plays later. But again, stuff like that can often mean the difference between a win and a loss. And if Clemson would have scored there, Swearinger may have had to hitchhike home.



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