Dominant performance leaves no doubt

Leaving Death Valley on Saturday, there were plenty of folks saying, “It’s about time.” “The streak is done.” “Finally.” Indeed.

Clemson snapped its five-game losing streak to rival South Carolina on Saturday, and there was a huge sigh of relief from the fan base after the game.

But what those fans saw during the game was dominance: from the Clemson offense, the Clemson defense and the Clemson coaching staff.

Dominance all the way around.

This was more like the Clemson-Carolina games that Tigers fans have come to know through the years instead of what has happened the previous five years.

South Carolina took an early lead, but Clemson controlled the game from there, and the Gamecocks scored only one more touchdown after taking their 7-0 lead in the first quarter. The Tigers finished with 491 yards of total offense, while allowing just 339 and only 63 on the ground. That flipped the script on this game from the past few years and was a determining factor in the outcome.

The Tigers were the more physical bunch Saturday as they pushed around the Gamecocks throughout the day and controlled both lines of scrimmage. Clemson fans haven’t seen that in some time in this series – five years to be exact – and it was a special to see that from this year’s team. Clemson has had an up-and-down season, mainly because of injuries, but the Tigers put it all together Saturday and had their best showing of the season.

It’s about time.

A performance to remember
Dabo Swinney broke some news in his postgame news conference Saturday, revealing that freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson had suffered a torn ACL in practice leading up to the Georgia State game.

Wait … what?

Yes, Watson had suffered a knee injury against Georgia Tech that was feared to be a torn ACL. But it turned out not to be. Yet, he did exactly that a few days later?

And he played anyway?

That really shined a spotlight on his performance and showed a toughness and leadership that a team needs to see from its quarterback. Watson ran five times for 13 yards with one designed run, three quarterback sneak tries and one scramble. The Tigers didn’t utilize his dual-threat talents as much Saturday (thank goodness), but they didn’t really need to (more on that later).

Instead, Watson showed off his accuracy and his arm as the Tigers’ offensive coaches went with a more conservative game plan with their quarterback, and with good reason. He took advantage, completing 14-of-19 passes for 269 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the kind of performance that Clemson fans will never forget – especially with the troubles the Tigers have had against the Gamecocks in recent years and especially with the kind of struggles the Clemson offense has had this season. It was also the kind of gutsy performance that can set Watson off on a special season in 2015 as he takes control of this program and makes it his team next year.

Third-down spark
One of Watson’s biggest plays came right after South Carolina’s first touchdown late in the first quarter.

Trailing 7-0, the Tigers didn’t do much with the first two plays of their ensuing drive. Wayne Gallman gained 2 yards on first down, and then Watson threw an incomplete pass. It was one of the few times this season he has looked like a true freshman as he tried to force the ball to a covered receiver instead of taking a check-down.

A three-and-out on the drive could have given the Gamecocks some confidence and momentum and led to some trouble for the Tigers. Instead, Watson came through with a big-time throw, a 25-yard completion over the middle to Mike Williams to get Clemson out of a tough spot. On the very next play, Watson had a quick pitch to Artavis Scott on a fly sweep, and Scott went the distance for the tying score and switched the momentum to the Tigers’ side.

Power game steps up
Where has this running game been all season?

Yes, South Carolina’s defense has been suspect for most of this season, but the Clemson offensive line hasn’t pushed anyone around all season. That group did just that Saturday.

Clemson ran 40 times for 225 yards – an average of 5.6 yards per carry – and the running game came up with big play after big play when it was needed. The line also didn’t allow a single sack and kept a strong pocket around Watson.

Gallman was the star of the show with 27 carries for 191 yards and one touchdown. He looked quick and dynamic while also running strong and with power, and the Gamecocks simply had no answer for him.

Gallman averaged 7.1 yards per carry and had a touchdown, and he looked every bit like a go-to lead running back that Clemson’s offense needs to have moving forward.

The offensive line was really on display with 7:49 left in the game after the Gamecocks scored to pull within 28-17. The Tigers’ line responded and led the offense on a nine-play, 75-yard drive that covered 5:14 and led to a Watson 1-yard run to put the game away. Gallman was spectacular on the drive with six carries for 71 yards.

Dominant on defense yet again
In the five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks, the Tigers’ defense just hasn’t been able to come up with the big play, the key play, to turn the tide or get the ball back for the offense.

There were no such troubles Saturday.

Clemson’s defense did give up 276 yards passing, but many of those were empty yards. And the Gamecocks didn’t have a chance up front as the Clemson defensive line and linebackers dominated the day (oh, and the secondary was really good, as well). It was a complete performance by a defense that has had a lot of complete performances this season.

South Carolina managed just 63 yards on 33 carries, an average of 1.9 yards per carry. The Clemson defense beat up the South Carolina offense, and it came up with several huge stops.

None were bigger than a couple of fourth-down stops in the second half.

The first one came after one of the worst officiating calls you will ever see – and there were some pretty bad ones by the officiating crew Saturday – when Stephone Anthony was flagged and ejected for a targeting call on Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson. That gave the Gamecocks a first down, but it also fired up the Clemson defense.

After South Carolina got another first down to the Clemson 2, the Tigers stepped up with four huge plays. Knowing they really had no chance to run the ball on this front, the Gamecocks threw the ball three times in the sequence. Thompson misfired on all three (he completed only 21-of-39 in the game, by the way), while the third-down play was a Thompson run that fooled no one.

Still leading 28-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers’ defense came up huge again with the Gamecocks facing a short field. South Carolina started on the Clemson 39-yard line but couldn’t get a first down, and Thompson tried a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1, but he was stopped short.

What’s next?
The bowl game is next, and it could be the Orange Bowl. While that would be a big accomplishment and the chance for another 10-win season would be, as well, that’s in the back of the minds of Tigers fans right now.

They’re going to enjoy Saturday’s win for a while. It ended the program’s worst stretch ever against its biggest rival, and it came in a fashion Clemson fans will love.

The quarterback showed a lot of heart and guts. The offensive line was physical and overpowering. The defense was dominant throughout. It has taken a long time for the Tigers to get here against the Gamecocks. But they did Saturday, and it was quite enjoyable for the huge crowd at Death Valley.

Finally.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.

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