Déjà vu

COLUMBIA – It all felt so familiar, so repetitive, so tiring.

Just take the game film of South Carolina's 2012 triumph in Clemson, change a few numbers, change the starting quarterback and you have what unfolded here inside Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday night.

Clemson couldn't get off the field on third down. Couldn't move the ball consistently on offense. Made crucial turnovers.

And the result was the same: another South Carolina victory, this time 31-17.

South Carolina's fifth consecutive win over the Tigers – the Gamecocks' longest win streak in the series' 105-game history – was frustrating just because of the way it unfolded.

Clemson had a year to learn from 2012's mistakes, improve its flaws and forge a better result. Instead, it all felt eerily similar.

A year ago, South Carolina ran 86 plays to Clemson's 59, outgained the Tigers 444-328 and held the ball for 39:58 to Clemson's 20:02. Clemson lost the turnover battle, 2-1.

Saturday night? The Gamecocks ran 78 plays to Clemson's 57. Clemson actually outgained USC 352-318, but held the ball for just 21:51 to USC's 38:09. Clemson lost the turnover battle 6-0.

"I started thinking," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "Amazingly, when we play these guys form Clemson, the script follows the same thing."

In the two losses to South Carolina, the Tigers had eight turnovers while averaging 17 points per game. That's no recipe for success.

"We never play a complete and clean game against those guys," Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "Credit those guys. They do a really good job of capitalizing on our mistakes. I think we hurt ourselves for the most part."

And while several of Boyd's late interceptions came while trying to make up a two-score deficit with the Gamecocks set back in cover 2, looking for blood, several turnovers loomed as particularly damaging.

Clemson's first drive ended when Sammy Watkins lofted a wide receiver pass too high for Adam Humphries, and Brison Williams intercepted it in the end zone.

With the game tied 7-7, Clemson forced a quick three-and-out and looked ready to gain momentum. But with teammate Martavis Bryant in close quarters, punt returner Humphries let the punt bounce off his chest, and South Carolina recovered at the Clemson 39.

South Carolina pounced. Connor Shaw led a quick drive that finished with a nine-yard pass to Shaq Roland in the right corner of the end zone, and the Gamecocks took a 14-7 lead with 14:54 left in the half. With South Carolina holding a 24-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, you got the feeling the night might be different.

Boyd's scramble on third and 12 from his own 25 extended the drive, and a 22-yard Rod McDowell run moved the ball into South Carolina territory. But at the USC 33, disaster struck. Boyd pushed for extra yardage and had the ball stripped, with South Carolina's Chaz Sutton recovering.

"I honestly thought I was down," Boyd said. "I got down, got lifted back up and it shimmied out. That was how it happened."

Clemson's defense forced a punt – and then, disaster, times three.

Humphries fumbled at his own 34, and South Carolina recovered.

It was the Tigers' fourth turnover of the night, and second on a Humphries punt return. The Gamecocks applied the dagger quickly: tailback Pharoh Cooper connected with Brandon Wilds for a 26-yard touchdown, extending the lead to 31-17 with 3:44 to play.

"Those two turnovers were huge," Swinney said. "The last one with Adam, it was a touchdown game, we've moved the ball all night. We give it right back to them, they capitalize. Those 14 points, that killed us."

"Four turnovers, Swinney added, "two in plus territory, two on punt returns. Those were the difference in the game. No question about it." The failure to learn from past failures extended to the Tigers' defense.

A year ago, South Carolina converted 11 of 21 third down attempts and quarterback Dylan Thompson completed 23 of 41 passes for 310 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, adding 38 yards rushing on 14 attempts – including a 20-yard gain on a crucial late third-and-19. Saturday? The Gamecocks converted 10 of 19 third down tries. Shaw rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts, adding 152 yards and a passing score on 14 of 26 attempts.

It was very similar to his 2011 performance: 107 yards rushing and a touchdown on 19 attempts, while passing for 210 yards and three scores.

"It's very frustrating," Swinney said. "It's not like we didn't know they were going to run the quarterback draw. We worked hard on defending it, got to see the gaps, they blocked us and missed a few tackles. Some of the plays were pass plays, some were called draws. It's very disappointing we didn't do a better job of stopping the quarterback."

Disappointing is a word plenty of Clemson fans are likely directing at this season. Over the last two seasons, the Tigers are 21-4. But all four losses have come against Florida State and South Carolina.

This season, Clemson averaged 44.8 points per game against everyone but the Seminoles and Gamecocks and committed 12 turnovers.

Against those two? 17 points per game and 10 combined turnovers.

It made Swinney's postgame rhetoric about three consecutive 10-win seasons ring rather hollow. "10-win seasons are hard to get," he said. "That's what I know. I want to win them all. I don't' wish to lose any. Do I wish those two losses were different? Those were two big rivalry games for us. We've had three 10-win seasons and nobody wants to celebrate. Nobody wants to hear that. You've got to have perspective. You have to know how hard it is to win games. We've been very consistent. Tonight was a bad night.

"Those two big opportunities we've had had huge implications for us. (FSU) is probably playing for the national championship. We had a very good season. It would have been a great season and we could have gone to the BCS. Who knows what might have happened?

"….We've had a lot of progress. I know you're judged on this game. That's how a lot of people judge this season. They say that if you're 1-11 it's OK if you win this game… I doubt that, probably not. But this one hurts everyone."

What hurts most, of course, was the sinking feeling of déjà vu. Clemson and its fans have another year to think about that – and it won't sit well.

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