CLEMSON — 1. The offensive line still isn’t ready for big-time games: Clemson believed its offensive line had improved significantly over last season’s disastrous end; the Tigers entered Saturday in the top 10 nationally in total offense, scoring offense and passing offense, and were 30th in rushing. But after taking a first-quarter lead with a 16-play, 85-yard touchdown drive and following it with a two-play, 75-yard drive, Clemson had only one drive that covered more than 33 yards. South Carolina piled up six sacks, most allowed by the Tigers this season and most since N.C. State had six last November.
Sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney racked up a Memorial Stadium-record 4.5 sacks and was generally uncontrollable. Both of Tajh Boyd’s interceptions came from pressure – one from Clowney and one from Aldrick Forham. Clemson had a trio of three-and-outs and ran just 19 plays in the second half. The Tigers’ line is improved, but it still can’t hang with powerful, SEC-caliber lines.
2. A lack of secondary depth caught up with Clemson: Two of the Tigers’ top cornerbacks – Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson – are out for the season with injuries. A third, sophomore starter Bashaud Breeland, missed the game with a groin injury suffered against N.C. State (on special teams, no less). The Tigers had only three original scholarship cornerbacks available: senior Xavier Brewer, sophomore Garry Peters and freshman Cortez Davis. Brewer played well, recording 12 tackles, a big sack and a key end-zone interception that ended a South Carolina drive. But senior safeties Jonathan Meeks and Rashard Hall both struggled in coverage, with Hall missing several key tackles. It was a big reason why USC backup quarterback Dylan Thompson threw for 310 yards.
3. Clemson still has issues defending a quarterback who can run: A year ago, Connor Shaw shredded Clemson for 107 rushing yards. Saturday, Shaw sat on the bench with a foot injury, but Thompson – allegedly far less mobile than Shaw – picked up the slack. He had 38 yards rushing, but that doesn’t include 35 yards lost on five sacks. His 20-yard scramble on third and 19 from the Clemson 26 late in the fourth quarter was perhaps the game’s biggest play, setting up the clinching touchdown.
The Tigers allowed 102 rushing yards to Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, 104 to Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington and 99 to Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas. Maybe the problem isn’t the system – it’s the players who populate it.
4. When Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins aren’t involved, the offense struggles: The Tigers’ two star receivers combined for 71 yards on four catches Saturday. That includes Hopkins’ 43-yard touchdown catch, the pair’s only impact play. Hopkins had a pair of drops and Watkins also had a drop. But their lack of offensive involvement was a mystery, particularly the lack of jet sweeps and short passes to Watkins, which are his bread-and-butter. USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said if Tajh Boyd didn't get his first read, he'd tuck and run. He used double coverage on Hopkins or Watkins at times, allowing safety D.J. Swearinger to cover a slot receiver. It worked out quite well. Clemson is at its best when both players are in the flow, and that wasn’t the case Saturday.
5. Clemson still needs impact defensive linemen: Swinney has to be wondering what else he could have done to secure Clowney’s commitment two years ago: he and South Carolina waged a pitched battle for his services. Ultimately, Clemson needs star-caliber defensive linemen to take the next step. No.1 national recruit Robert Nkemdiche was committed for five months until his recent decommitment – Ole Miss, where his brother Denzel plays, is now the favorite. But five-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams was on hand Saturday night, and he surely saw the opportunity for early playing time. Until the Tigers improve in the trenches, they won’t beat high-caliber SEC opponents.