CLEMSON — A year ago, Clemson’s offense never really got out of neutral at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Following the first offensive series, rock-solid senior offensive tackle Phillip Price was yanked after it became clear his sprained knee wasn’t healthy.
Left guard Brandon Thomas shifted to tackle, and the evening went downhill from there.
The offensive line allowed five sacks and Clemson managed just 153 yards of total offense in a 34-13 defeat to South Carolina.
A year later, a line that had three new starters entering the season has made significant progress.
The Tigers are in the top 10 nationally in total offense, scoring offense and passing offense, and most importantly, 30th nationally in rush offense.
Clemson averages 203.2 yards rushing per game; a year ago, the Tigers averaged 158.5, 59th nationally.
“We’ve got a lot more confidence than we did last year,” said senior center Dalton Freeman. “Last year we were kind of hoping and praying things went the right way. This year we’re expecting it.”
The improved line faces its biggest challenge yet Saturday when the Gamecocks visit for a 7 p.m., ESPN-televised rivalry showdown.
USC’s standout line is led by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the subject of an intense recruiting battle between the Tigers and Gamecocks two years ago. Clowney has 8.5 sacks in 10 games as well as 17 tackles for loss – he is a finalist for the Bednarik and Lombardi Awards and Nagurski Trophy.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Clowney would be the No.1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, if he were eligible.
“I’ve heard (about Clowney) since he was recruited to come here and go to South Carolina,” said sophomore right tackle Gifford Timothy. “I’ve heard from day 1 that he’ll be a tough challenge. He’s a good player, along with all their defensive linemen.”
South Carolina’s line doesn’t end with Clowney; senior end Devin Taylor is a returning first-team All-SEC defensive end with 2.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season.
“They’re very athletic, probably the best front we’ve played, equal or maybe a little better than Florida State,” Freeman said. “They’re going to create a big challenge for us. They just say our guy is better than yours, and rightfully so.”
Clemson’s line enters on a roll. The last two weeks, Maryland and N.C. State entered Memorial Stadium as the ACC’s sack leaders. They both left without a single sack.
Last week, the Tigers rolled up 62 points and 754 yards of total offense against the Wolfpack – two yards short of the school record. They’ve topped 700 yards of offense three times this season.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd’s weight loss and improved mobility has helped significantly – offensive coordinator Chad Morris said he was like a “concrete deer” last November – but a line that struggled to protect him last season has been significantly improved.
A year ago, the Tigers yielded 2.36 sacks per game, 97th nationally. This year, that number is down to 1.82 sacks per game, 60th nationally.
“I’d say we’re playing our best football as a unit,” Timothy said. “We’ve been really good about staying consistent on a weekly basis. That’s been coach (Dabo) Swinney’s challenge to us as a front five, to stay consistent every week and not have up and down weeks. We’ve taken that to heart.”
That’s a major difference from last season’s disappointing end.
“We got satisfied towards the end of the season,” Timothy said. “One of the things the coaches have been really good about is keeping us focused, not worrying so much about who we play, how we play as an offense and worrying about what we can control.”
If they can control the Gamecocks Saturday, the Tigers’ first rivalry win in four years will likely follow.
“They physically beat us these past three years and that’s what I’ve been trying to tell our guys,” Freeman said. “We control a lot of that but it’s about us. It’s not about them.”