Clemson's offensive line provided the lanes to run.
Running game effective...when used
At one point in the second quarter I tweeted Andre Ellington and Rod McDowell had combined for 99 yards on 13 carries, a salty 7.6 yards per carry against a good USC defense. From that point forward these two combined for only 5 other carries, as Clemson moved away from the run, and not coincidentally, the offense began to sputter.
I don't have the brilliant mind of Offensive Coordinator Chad Morris, but I do know this about offensive football: when you CAN run, you DO run. This is especially true when you have an elite back like Ellington, and you are trying to keep the defensive line from teeing off on the passer.
Morris' game plan, or lack thereof
Chad Morris has done great things at Clemson, installing a high powered offense that's set many records. Without his offense, Clemson may be a .500 team or worse this year with the defense playing so poorly.
That said, Morris didn't have his best effort this week, either in designing the game plan or calling plays. South Carolina's front is imposing, but Morris did nothing to keep them off balance. Clemson featured no screens, quick throws, speed sweeps or delays to slow down the ends, and Morris abandoned the running game at the first sign Clemson falling behind.
In total, it seemed Morris really did nothing different for a South Carolina defense that is far superior to every other team Clemson has played this season except Florida State, a team that Morris did scheme for. In that game, Clemson scored 37 points and kept that defense off balance, yet no such plan was evident against the Gamecocks.
Clemson decided to block Jadeveon Clowney one on one and paid for it.
The plan, if you will, seemed to involve dropping Tajh Boyd back deep in the pocket allowing South Carolina's linemen to tee off on him while he heaved passes into coverage or took sacks. These defensive linemen, led by Jadaveon Clowney with 4.5 sacks on the night, were mostly single-blocked by the way, another flawed strategy that was doomed from the outset.
In postgame interviews, Morris opined on the performance of the offense by saying "it is what it is". What "it" looked like was an unimaginative game plan for Boston College or Furman, and not a plan for a top 10 defense with perhaps the best defensive player in the country.
Defense had no answers
After the last two weeks, it's apparent the defensive improvement through the middle of the season was just a product of the soft schedule. Against better teams in NC State and South Carolina, the defense returned to being shredded on a fairly routine basis.
When rumors Connor Shaw would likely miss the game this week, Clemson fans perked up knowing how Shaw carved up Clemson's defense both throwing and running last year. Backup Dylan Thompson was considered a not ready for primetime player, and his presence would help the Clemson defense slow down the Gamecock attack. However, Thompson stepped up and morphed into John Elway, passing for 310 yards and 3 touchdowns, while showing nifty moves on scrambles and designed bootlegs.
There's no doubt Clemson's defense helped Thompson get in a comfort zone, as pressure was spotty from the defensive line, and once again the secondary was as porous as a sieve. Brent Venables tried to bring extra pressure at times, but it seemed every time he did so Steve Spurrier had an answer, and Clemson's defense just couldn't get the Gamecocks off the field in the second half. On the night, South Carolina converted 55% on 3rd and 4th down plays.
Somehow, the defense held South Carolina to 20 points through three quarters, but Thompson made too many plays with his arm and his legs, while Clemson's defenders made far too few. In fact, Clemson let Thompson and the USC offense off the hook with two dropped interceptions and more sloppy tackling, a constant refrain this season.
Dylan Thompson executed Steve Spurrier's game plan to perfection.
4 in a row...and none that close
When a program beats another four years in a row, there's obviously a difference in those programs. This is especially true when all four of these games aren't really that close.
When I look at these rosters and the players recruited, it appears both programs are recruiting at a reasonably high level, so the talent gap is basically minimal.
But what South Carolina is doing much more consistently than Clemson is making football players. Basically, the player development at South Carolina is much more apparent. South Carolina's players are better tacklers, better blockers, make fewer mistakes on the field, and maybe most importantly, are mentally stronger than the team wearing orange.
The Gamecocks looked like the home team last night, completely unfazed by a Death Valley night game, and operated efficiently on both sides of the ball. For the second straight year, South Carolina handled Clemson with their backup quarterback and running backs, and with game plans that were simple strategies on each side of the ball that were well executed by their players.
In essence, South Carolina plays at a better fundamental level, and aren't impacted significantly when a player or two goes down with injury. They embody a team approach, and don't rely on a collection of individual talents. This unity, combined with above-average talent, great coaching, and a physical style of play, is leading to successful seasons in Columbia.
These ingredients are missing in far too many cases at Clemson. While progress has been made in changing the culture at Clemson, the players are still not mentally or physically strong enough, and continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
The door is not closed on the season for Clemson, as they still have a bowl game to try and wash the stain from this game. However, winning 10 games in a historically weak ACC seems a tad hollow considering Clemson lost both their "big" games on the season, and fourth in a row to South Carolina.
One thing is for certain, and that's some reflection on this rivalry needs to happen inside Dabo Swinney's office. For all the good things he's doing with the program, he's not accomplishing the most important thing, and that's beating South Carolina.
With all the talk of this game being emphasized in the offseason, Clemson came out with stale game plans and a tight psychii, not exactly the bullets needed for a program that continues to own you. The bottom line is whatever Clemson is doing to get ready for South Carolina isn't working, and the combined 4-year score of 124-54 is an ugly reminder of just how unprepared Clemson has been.
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