Against tumultuous ACC backdrop, can Dabo Swinney restore Clemson's historical dominance?

'It's not them - it's us,' said Dalton Freeman. Well, yes and no

Clemson and South Carolina fans cheered for their teams during the annual rivalry game on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012.

Photo by Sefton Ipock

Clemson and South Carolina fans cheered for their teams during the annual rivalry game on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012.

Give credit where it's due: the Ol' Ball Coach can deliver a zinger with surgical, venomous precision.

"It seems like when we play Clemson, they don't play very well," Steve Spurrier began his post-game press conference Saturday night, describing his Gamecocks as 'fortunate.'

Dalton Freeman had another take: "It's not them - it's us."

Well, yes and no.

Why did Clemson lose?

- Six sacks, which proved to be just the tip of the iceberg to South Carolina's relentless game-long pressure.

- Too much time for South Carolina's backup quarterback, Dylan Thompson, to operate. He rarely had less than he needed.

- Not enough Nuk. Just one catch - though a big one - wasn't enough to keep the Clemson offense running.

- Or Sammy Watkins. He had four catches, but nothing deep or dangerous.

- Sloppy tackling. The Gamecocks racked up plenty of yards-after-contact.

- Soft coverage. To avoid busts, the Tigers gave the Gamecock receivers a cushy pad, and South Carolina took what was there for the picking.

- Too few plays. Fifty nine snaps is insufficient for Chad Morris to work his offensive magic.

- Third down. The Gamecocks converted 11 of 21, and kept the football out of Clemson's hands. The Tigers were 5-of-12.

- Dropped interceptions. Enough to have changed the game in Clemson's favor.

But when all was said and done, South Carolina hit the road back to the mid-state with its first four-game series winning streak in a long generation, because, as Spurrier inferred, the Tigers were knocked off their game by the Gamecocks.

Forced, if you will, into not playing very well.

Again.

South Carolina's defensive front was so good that it simply overwhelmed a competent Clemson offensive line that has improved steadily over the course of the season.

It didn't look so much like an off-night by the Tigers as it did a dominant performance by the Gamecocks.

Tajh Boyd faced constant pressure, was taken to the ground six times behind the line of scrimmage, and threw a pair of pressure-induced interceptions that helped frame South Carolina's victory.

On the flip side of the coin, Clemson's defensive front didn't play badly - it just wasn't good enough to get pressure without help from the blitz. And when the Tigers blitzed, the Gamecock offense was good enough to find, and exploit, vacated areas.

It's tough for a rhythm-based offense to find its groove while sitting on the sideline.

There is every indication that Dabo Swinney is building things the right way with his Clemson program. The Tigers are for real. But four bitter losses in a row to the Gamecocks shows that Spurrier has a head start toward the same destination.

There's a troubling bigger picture, as well.

Clemson's loss was the final crash in a Saturday train wreck for the ACC against the SEC. Both Clemson and Florida State had their instate rivals over to their house for Thanksgiving weekend get-togethers; but to no avail.

The gap between the two conferences is real, top to bottom. And that's not going to change until the ACC's best teams - which looks to be Clemson and Florida State for a long while - start consistently taking care of their end-of-season business.

Talk and speculation about the Tigers and Seminoles needing to find a more suitable football home will undoubtedly fill the gap between now and the post-season bowls. Two ACC programs are on probation with another likely to follow; and on Sunday, the axe fell on two of the league's head coaches.

The ACC's turmoil is real. No one expected Maryland to bolt for the Big Ten, and the noises coming from Notre Dame last week weren't exactly reassuring for those hoping the Irish will stabilize the situation. No one can say what comes next.

Swinney and his staff will move on, roll up their sleeves, and get back to work on the football front. The Clemson program is still, we learned Saturday night, a work in progress.

And as the landscape shifts beneath their feet, Clemson's new athletic leadership will be put to a test every bit as formidable as Swinney faces in overtaking and reasserting Clemson's historical dominance over the Gamecocks.

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Comments » 8

teeman89 writes:

Look! There is no time for this coaching staff to be lamenating about our past transgresion with the Gamecocks. LSU or Texas A&M with "Johnny Football is up next for us. Both teams have a big can of "Whup you know what" and ready to open against us. Thus, the Tigers coaching staff need to stop talking and start doing something to preserve CU football glory by coaching this team to beat a good opponent this year besides the "patsy" we have already beaten this season.

lhaselden writes:

Clemson football is much improved from where we were over the past 15 years. We may have been dominating USC over that decade but we could not quite get to the top of the ACC. We have over the last 4 years been the competing for ACC championships and winning one, and 2 other Atlantic division titles. We have 11 Seniors and 10 juniors. Next year will be better than this year, the year after will be better still.
South Carolina has just had the best 4 year run in it's history of playing football. Beating UGa, winning the Easten Division once but beating UGa the last 2 years when UGa won the title because of a weaker schedule. As long as they play at the level they are playing at it will not be us dominating them. We have to play better to keep them from dominating us. The last several years we have lacked the depth and talent on our OL and DL to compete with them. Our OL could not protect Boyd last Sat and our DL could not sack their QB unless we blitzed. They are beating us in the trenches. We have to get better. I think we are improving but so are they. Their special teams looked better than ours as well. They highlight for us was 2 coffin corner punts.

kellytown writes:

I would say the Defense held up better than I thought it would we didn't get to the QB but to be on the field as much as they were they held their on. The Offense has had times as if they go to sleep. well tonight they went to sleep not by choice the fact is that they could not get the ball. I am a Clemson Tiger Fan and it hurts to see them loose to any one Having said that its time to go back to work let the past be just that the past get it together the sun doesn't shine in the same mule but all the time lets go kick some butt in the Bowl Game.

TigerNE writes:

There were enough problems that it is silly to argue one thing was responsible for the loss. Swinney owns most of all the pain and blame simply because he is head coach. But there are no cigars for Boyd nor Morris either. And if any one or group deserves any credit at all it would be Venables and the defense. Nothing worth bragging about but they were out manned and still played up until the end. Can't say that about Boyd or the play calling in my opinion.

The good news - Swinney will have two more chances to prove something since the bowl match is likely to be SEC again and the start of next season is SEC/UGA. If we still see the 'concrete deer' and paralyzed offense, I for one will expect some changes and not excuse making.

f8thwlk writes:

The play calling on offense was extremely questionable to me...we did not use our playmakers like we should. To offset the advantage they had on their defensive line, Chad should have focused more on getting sammy and andre the ball in space where they have room to run and soften up the defense and keep them honest. Plays like wide receiver screen and end around, throw in some misdirection to keep the defense from just pinning their ears back and coming after the quarterback. On defense Brent should have assigned someone to the quarterback when he dials up his blitzes to keep the quarterback from making big gains when our defense blitzes. They assigned Clowney to Tajh for that same purpose. How is it that the highest paid coordinators in college football do not know how to adjust during the course of a football games?...especially on offense where we have some of the most dynamic players in the country? Carolina defense should not have been able to handle our offense for four quarters unless you try to run straight at them...which is what we did. We needed to get the ball to the edge when we saw that they were beating us in the trenches. Chad should have dailed up misdirection all night until the defense softened up then you go back to the basics. ( He should have put the ball in Sammy's hands all night and told him "Sammy it's on you tonite. They have no one that can stay with you. I'm going to call your number all nite, whether we win or lose is on you." Its game like this one where your main guys have to be given the opportunity to make plays. They are the ones who got you here...feed them the ball.

TRUETIGER1 writes:

It is apparent USC made the right decisions. We need leadership. I am ashamed of the team, the coaches, and the AD on up. I cannot believe we got our ***es handed to us by a USC team playing back ups on our home field. The ACC is done and we are going to be another Wake Forrest if we remain on our current path. I am legacy, an Alumnus, an IPTAY Donor, a Clemson Fund Donor, and I have attended CU games for over 40yrs. I AM ASHAMED OF OUR ATHLETIC PROGRAMS.

TUN writes:

The cold hard reality is that in the two biggest games of this year (FSU and SCar), our beloved Tigers have not gotten the job done. Our best players have not emerged as the leaders who can take this team over the top. Boyd has got to be more mentally tough and assertive. Hopkins and Watkins have got to assert themselves as well and emerge as the truly elite receivers they are in these big games. If these offensive players cannot establish their dominance, then perhaps they are only very good or solid players but not GREAT. Great players play great in great games. They make everyone else around them better. They elevate the play of their teammates. These guys need to be challenged for the bowl game. Clemson cannot afford another loss on the national stage. Clemson cannot afford to take another hit to its national, public image. So far this year they have failed pure and simple but they have a chance to redeem themselves and reshape the public image of the program. A lot of work needs to be done to reshape this football program's public image and it begins with returning to what Clemson was known for during the Ford era--namely a punishing, smothering, stifling defense. That is where it all begins. Until we get that and get back to our roots, we will never be the dominant team that can win national championships.

cuGIZ82 writes:

Winning football games begins and ends in the trenches...you must win the line of scrimmage. We failed to do that vs FSU & SC. I would have like to see the OC place an additional linemen or TE into the scheme to deal with SC & FSU pass rushers.

It does not matter how many weapons an offense has if the QB doesn't have time to get the ball to them. I have yet to see a QB complete a pass while laying on his back. Morris has a good offensive scheme but sometimes you have to tweak what you do for certain opponents.

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