CLEMSON — They controlled the tempo. They controlled the lines of scrimmage, and once again, they control the Palmetto State.
No.13 South Carolina harassed Tajh Boyd and shut down No.12 Clemson’s prolific offense, taking a 27-17 win before 82,000 Saturday night inside Memorial Stadium.
It was the Gamecocks’ fourth consecutive win in the rivalry, their longest streak since 1951-54. South Carolina finished the regular season at 10-2; the Tigers dropped to 10-2 and saw their 13-game home win streak – the longest in program history – come to an end.
“We were very fortunate again,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “It seems like when we play Clemson they don’t play very well and we played well enough, I guess, a few more plays than they did.”
Clemson saw its hopes of a second consecutive BCS bowl come to an end, and will find out their bowl destination next week – likely in Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
“To lose to South Carolina four times in a row is incredibly disappointing,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s a hurting group of seniors in there, and that’s something everyone’s got to live with. We had to take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves and that’s something we didn’t do tonight.”
The Tigers ran just 59 plays, a season-low. South Carolina ran 86 and held the ball for over 39 minutes; Clemson had possession for just 20.
“They made some big plays and we made some costly penalties,” Swinney said. “That was the difference in the game. 86 snaps to 59 was not a good recipe for us.”
Swinney said the locker room was “hurting” afterward.
“We’ve done a lot of positive things but in sports as well as life, it’s what have you done for me lately,” said senior center Dalton Freeman. “This is going to put a damper on my career and everyone else’s career. That’s one of those things everyone has to put behind them as use as motivation for the years to come. “
Clemson is off this week and is expected to start bowl practice Dec. 8, but losing the BCS dream stung.
“This was a big game for us,” Freeman said. “Our goal was the BCS and a lot of other things out there. But we do have the opportunity to finish this season strong with a bowl win. We’ve got to keep working and make sure nobody gets discouraged.”
South Carolina backup quarterback Dylan Thompson, playing as starter Connor Shaw sat with a foot injury, had 310 yards passing and three touchdowns but also hurt the Tigers with his legs, gaining 38 yards rushing.
“I knew I had my team behind me and it just helped me not be nervous,” Thompson said. “Everyone was so encouraging and it helps when you have your whole team behind you.”
Meanwhile, Boyd struggled to find a rhythm, completing only 11 of 24 passes for 183 yards (his second-lowest total of the season), a touchdown and two interceptions. He was sacked six times.
Star wideouts Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins combined for just 71 yards on four catches.
South Carolina’s final drive was the killer. A Thompson touchdown run was called back due to holding, but on third and 19, he scrambled for 20 to the Clemson 6.
On third and goal, he found Bruce Ellington open in the back of the end zone for a six-yard score, giving South Carolina a 27-17 lead with 4:17 to play.
The drive covered 13 plays and 65 yards, and took 7:39 off the clock. Game over.
“That was the difference in the game down the stretch,” Swinney said.
Following a rare three-and-out, Clemson found offensive rhythm on its second drive of the game.
Boyd converted a trio of short-yardage third downs – at his own 34, at South Carolina’s 43 and on third and goal from the 2, walking in untouched beside a crushing David Beasley block for a 7-0 lead.
South Carolina hit right back behind Thompson.
Taking advantage of soft coverage by Clemson’s secondary, the Gamecocks quickly moved down the field. Justice Cunningham gained 19 on a third-and-6 over the middle, and Bruce Ellington got behind Garry Peters for a 13-yard touchdown, tying the game at 7 with 1:46 left in the first.
It didn’t take Clemson long to respond. On first and 10 from the 25, tailback Rod McDowell burst up the left sideline for a 32-yard gain.
One play later, Boyd went deep for Hopkins, who beat a pair of defenders, hauling in a pass for a 43-yard touchdown in the left corner of the end zone.
Two plays, 75 yards, 34 seconds, and Clemson led again, 14-7.
South Carolina found the key to stopping the Tigers’ offense – keep it off the field.
The Gamecocks ground out a 12-play, 79-yard drive that covered 6:41. Freshman safety Travis Blanks made a pass breakup in the end zone, and South Carolina settled for a 27-yard Adam Yates field goal that cut the lead to 14-10.
Clemson outgained South Carolina 237-188 in the half, but didn’t score in the second quarter, the first time that has happened all season.
South Carolina took the lead with an impressive 11-play, 85-yard drive to start the third quarter.
Wideout Nick Jones found his way between two defenders for a 31-yard gain to the Clemson 39.
And even a holding call that gave the Gamecocks a second and 20 at the Clemson 40 didn’t seem to faze Thompson, who found Ace Sanders underneath inside the CU 10.
He wriggled free of safety Rashard Hall and raced into the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown, giving South Carolina its first lead of the night at 17-14.
“They went out there and were able to keep the ball forever,” Swinney said.
Following another Clemson three-and-out, the Gamecocks moved right back down the field, facing a third-and-1 at the Clemson 16.
A hold negated a Kenny Miles first-down run, and USC settled for Yates’ 43-yard field goal, stretching the lead to 20-14.
A dormant Tiger offense gave the crowd of 82,000 a major jolt with Jaron Brown’s diving 38-yard catch to the USC 38. Andre Ellington churned for 13, but the drive stalled there, and Chandler Catanzaro booted a 37-yard field goal, cutting the margin back to 20-17.
The lead should have grown early in the fourth quarter, thanks to a pair of pass-interference calls on Clemson’s secondary.
Steve Spurrier chose to go for it on fourth and 11 from the Clemson 40, and was rewarded when Hall was whistled for interference, extending the drive.
Moments later, the Gamecocks faced a third and 9 at the Clemson 24. This time, Brewer was flagged, and Clemson students threw objects on the field in protest, drawing a warning from the public address announcer.
Brewer got the last laugh. On second down, he trucked Thompson on a corner blitz for an eight-yard loss.
On the next down, Thompson threw into the end zone for Jones, and Brewer made a drive-killing interception.
With Clemson facing a third and 7 at the USC 47, the Gamecocks brought pressure up the middle. Sophomore end Jadeveon Clowney - who had a Memorial Stadium-record 4.5 sacks - broke right into Boyd’s field of vision, and he threw his second interception of the night, this one right to safety Brison Williams.
The gap he took? Occupied by freshman center Ryan Norton, who was replacing senior Dalton Freeman, on the sideline with an ice pack on his groin.
“19 plays in the second half makes it that much more crucial to take advantage of our opportunities we do have,” Boyd said.
Following the game-opening 16-play drive, Clemson ran just 43 more plays for the final 50 minutes, one week after running 102 plays against N.C. State.
“We just beat ourselves tonight,” Freeman said. “We weren’t able to move the ball. We had a 16-play drive we scored on early, thought we were in a rhythm, everything was clicking. As the game was going on we were getting too many three-and-outs and weren’t getting in a rhythm.”