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December 2, 2013

The good, bad and unknown



South Carolina pulled out an emotional fifth-straight victory over Clemson Saturday night. Here are the good and bad takeaways from the 31-17 win, plus some questions the weekend raised.

The Good

Memorizing the script. Steve Spurrier has perfected the formula to beating Clemson, and it's fairly simple: Pressure the quarterback and control the clock to limit the Tigers' offensive possessions. The Gamecocks executed it perfectly Saturday, dominating the possession battle 38:09 to 21:51, sacking Tajh Boyd five times and forcing him to commit three of Clemson's six turnovers.

Connor Shaw. In his final game at Williams-Brice Stadium, the senior was the star of the show, scoring two touchdowns and accounting for 246 of South Carolina's 318 total yards.

Shaw wasn't his sharpest through the air, but he made up for it by pacing the Gamecocks with 94 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The Flowery Branch, Ga., native picked up several third-and-longs with his legs, even though Clemson often deployed a spy to contain him.

As Dabo Swinney said in his post-game press conference, "there's a reason why they're undefeated here at home; there's a reason why he never lost a game here at home." With his grittiness, his intangibles, and -- yes -- his talent passing and running the football, Shaw demonstrated that reason again in his home finale.

Shaq Roland. Roland's stat line of three catches for 40 yards and a touchdown just doesn't tell the whole story of his impact. The sophomore showed just what he is capable of against Clemson, coming down with spectacular catches and getting open more often than he was covered.

He established himself as a viable deep threat, and his presence commanded Clemson's attention (evidenced by multiple pass interference penalties against him), which helped spread the field and opened up room for Connor Shaw and Pharoh Cooper to exploit the Tigers on the ground.

Pharoh Cooper. The cream of South Carolina's freshman crop continued to find multiple ways to contribute Saturday night. The Havelock, N.C., native played mistake-free on special teams and averaged 40 yards per kick return, including one he carried 55 yards down the sideline to put South Carolina into Clemson territory at the start of the second half.

Cooper was also productive out of the Wildcat formation, dicing Clemson's defense up for 18 yards on four quarterback draws and tossing a 26-yard game-sealing touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds in the fourth quarter. Not bad for a guy who didn't receive any interest from Clemson during his recruitment.

The entire defense. It's hard to single out one player or even one unit. South Carolina's defense came out hungry, getting after the ball carrier, pressuring Tajh Boyd, and pouncing on opportunities to take the ball away. Kelcy Quarles, Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton played well in their last games against Clemson, combining for 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

And after being carved up on Clemson's first drive of the game, South Carolina's linebackers shaped up as well. The unit was led by Kaiwan Lewis, who bobbed in and out of the starting job at Mike linebacker this season but paced the team against Clemson with six tackles -- five of them solo -- and registered a sack, tackle for loss and a forced fumble.

With all three units firing on all cylinders Saturday night, South Carolina's defense played to the standard set by the 2011 and 2012 units.


The Bad

Getting too cute. Apart from a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Pharoh Cooper to Brandon Wilds, trick plays were a no-go Saturday night. The first -- a Sammy Watkins' pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Brison Williams -- cost Clemson what would probably have been a touchdown on their first possession.

Connor Shaw's jump pass to Shaq Roland at the goal line failed miserably, and Pharoh Cooper's first pass of the game -- to Connor Shaw -- was ill-advised and nearly picked off. A trick play that appeared to call for Bruce Ellington to throw the ball was busted up when no one broke free downfield, but Ellington managed to muscle his way to a 7-yard rush on the play.

Plus, South Carolina continues to waste time with its useless swinging gate extra point formation. It's an innovative way to sneak in a two-point conversion on PATs, but South Carolina never, ever runs it. If the defense ever refused to respect it, would the Gamecocks even pull the trigger and put the ball in Elliott Fry's hands?

Mike Davis. The sophomore was one of the best tailbacks in the country through the season's first nine games, but has been nothing but pedestrian since. He looked run down against Florida, he skipped the Coastal Carolina game, and he still seemed to be running on fumes against Clemson -- and not for a lack of touches, either.

Davis took 17 total touches for a measly 32 yards against the Tigers and lacked the speed, power and explosiveness that oozed from his pores earlier this season. Granted, Brandon Wilds (three carries, 3 yards) and Shon Carson (two carries, 2 yards) weren't much better on the ground, but Davis' recent decline could be worrisome.

When referees attack. Connor Shaw looked like he was heading into the end zone for his second rushing touchdown of the game at the start of the fourth quarter, but was thwarted by a referee who just couldn't get out of the way. Mike Davis would punch in the go-ahead touchdown moments a few plays later to save the ref from a good, old-fashion house egging, but the whole incident was reminiscent of Wilbur Hackett Jr.'s manhandling of Stephen Garcia near the goal line at LSU in 2008.


The Unknown

What could have been. South Carolina will be wringing its hands over losing at Tennessee this season until the day the Gamecocks hold up the SEC Championship Game trophy, whenever it may be. Auburn's upset of Alabama seemed to crack open the door for South Carolina to win its first SEC Championship this season, but Missouri was quick to slam the door in the Gamecocks' face.

The Gamecocks have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time for its fans to be taking 10-win seasons for granted already, but the team will have to wait until next for a shot at taking the next step.

Is that Clemson football? After the game, several Clemson players -- including Sammy Watkins -- said their play against South Carolina over the past few years hasn't been representative of how good the Tigers really are. It's true that teams simply have bad games sometimes, as anyone who watched the nightmare in Knoxville, Tenn., this season would confirm.

It's also true that the Tigers haven't had their best performances against the Gamecocks recently. But the question remains: Is Clemson's poor play a result of implosions that just happen to coincide with a particular Saturday at the end of November? Or is it rather a result of South Carolina drawing up a gameplan to beat the Tigers and executing it?

Does defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward have a secret voodoo doll of Tajh Boyd that he uses to manipulate Boyd's decision-making and pass attempts, or does Ward just understand that spread offenses can be thwarted with physicality and consistent pressure on the quarterback?

Did Clemson hand the ball over to South Carolina? Or did the Gamecocks take it away? A mixture of both, perhaps?

And while we're at it, why have Clemson's five-straight self-destructions occurred against South Carolina, rather than -- say -- Wake Forest?

Consider, as food for thought, that against bottom-100 defenses this season, Clemson is 10-0 and averages 535.7 yards per game and 41.5 points per game. But against top-20 defenses, the Tigers are 0-2 and average 339 yards per game and 15.5 points per game. Again, just food for thought.

Is Connor Shaw the greatest Gamecock quarterback of all time? Only if you measure greatness by the number of wins, winning percentage, and even the worth of his intangibles.



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