CLEMSON — Late Saturday night, an odd feeling set in over the hallway just outside Clemson’s locker room where reporters talk with players and coordinators.
Save reporters speaking with their interview subjects as they trickled out of the locker room, silence ruled the moment.
It was an unfamiliar feeling. For 13 consecutive home games, dating back to November 2010, laughter, music and general raucousness emanated from behind the locker room door, the sign of a successful day on the gridiron.
On this night, quiet contemplation and disappointment dominated.
With good reason. Clemson coaches and players believed this would be the year they broke through and ended South Carolina’s three-game win streak in the programs’ bitter rivalry.
Instead, they were left to process a 27-17 defeat, giving South Carolina its longest rivalry winning streak since 1951-54.
Clemson is left with an unfamiliar and uneasy feeling – a second-class citizen inside its own state.
Since Dabo Swinney sealed his ascension to the full-time head coaching role with a 31-14 whipping of South Carolina in November 2008, the Gamecocks have dominated their upstate rivals.
They’ve outscored Clemson by a collective score of 124-54, with all four victories coming by double digits.
Saturday’s win was perhaps the most galling of all. The Gamecocks entered as a four-point underdog without their top running back (Marcus Lattimore), their starting quarterback (Connor Shaw) and, midway through the game, their No.2 tailback (Kenny Miles), eventually turning to freshman Mike Davis, the brother of former Clemson star tailback James Davis.
Yet, they controlled the pace with a slow-but-steady offense, running 86 plays and holding the ball for 39:58, including 23 of 30 minutes in the second half.
Clemson ran a season-low 59 plays and held the ball for only 20:02, including just 19 second-half plays.
An offense which entered in the top 10 nationally in total offense, points per game and passing offense was limited to a season-low 17 points after having scored at least 37 points in 10 consecutive games, an ACC record.
South Carolina won with SEC-worthy brawn, led by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who piled up a Memorial Stadium-record 4.5 sacks.
For Clemson’s seniors – the first class in 58 years to finish their college careers without beating South Carolina- it was an ugly feeling.
“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 and use as motivation for the years to come. “
All of the positives of this season – another piece of an ACC Atlantic Division title, the second consecutive season with 10 victories and the first 10-win regular season since 1981 – were forgotten as fans and players processed their rival celebrating on their own field, waving a huge garnet-and-black flag.
Instead of another BCS bowl bid, the next month will feature words like “regroup” and “refocus,” likely on a Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup with another SEC team.
Disappointment and speculation – about recruiting and the future of offensive coordinator Chad Morris, the nation’s highest-paid assistant at $1.3 million annually – will likely dominate conversation.
A 10-2 season with losses to your biggest rivals – Florida State and South Carolina – feels empty.
So does the knowledge of fans, players and coaches that it’ll be another 365 days until they get another shot at South Carolina.
For now, the Palmetto State is property of the Gamecocks. And Clemson can’t say a thing about it.