Welcome to the Palmetto Bowl edition of What We Are Hearing!
Due to the Thanksgiving interruptus and in the interest of economy, I’ll include my grades and analysis of the Wake game here in the WWAH. That road game last week was just what the doctor ordered after the traumatic shock of the Tigers’ first regular season loss in two years and first home loss in three years! Last week, I felt like it was actually beneficial for the Tigers to leave the scene of the crime and be able to circle the wagons on the road at Wake, and that’s exactly what they did. For whatever reason, the Tigers have been much more consistent and mistake-free on the road than they have been at home, and that trend continued in Winston Salem. Here are my grades for the Wake Forest game….
Player of the Game: Wayne Gallman
Offensively, the Tigers did exactly what they needed to do, getting off to a fast start and establishing balance with the running game. Dabo and the coaches were unapologetic—and rightfully so—for the 50 rush yards against Pitt because they knew going in that Pitt was going to show them 8-and-9-man fronts, forcing the Tigers to throw. Watson set an ACC record with 580 pass yards, and the Tigers scored 42 points—both above their season averages and more than enough to win. That being said, the Tigers’ offense is at its best when they are able to run the ball effectively. On the opening possession at Wake, Gallman converted a 4th down with a 42-yard touchdown run between the tackles. The Tigers went on to score touchdowns in their first 4 possessions of the game, essentially putting the game out of reach and totally seizing control of the crowd with a 28-0 lead in the opening minutes of the 2nd quarter. The only real negative on the offensive side is that the Tigers went about two quarters with no points. Part of that was due to the severe wind forcing them to attempt fourth-and-long conversions rather than kicking field goals, but it would have been nice to see the offense finish on one or two of those drives in the middle of the game. There were also a few drops by receivers. However, the positives exceeded the negatives by far. The Tigers finished with 456 total yards and 254 rushing yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. They only ran 75 plays, which is partially a function of the inordinate number of run plays between the two teams, but the Tigers’ tempo wasn’t quite as fast as we’ve seen in the past. The Tigers were a respectable 7 of 15 on 3rd down and 2 of 4 on 4th down. Above all else, the two biggest areas of emphasis for the Tigers were turnovers and red zone execution—their two biggest weaknesses all season long. They had zero turnovers in the game and were a perfect 4 for 4 with 4 touchdowns in the red zone. In last week’s What We Are Hearing, I opined that the most critical matchup would be the Tigers’ ACC-worst red zone offense against the Wake Forest red zone defense, which was one of the best in the nation. The Tigers won that matchup convincingly—especially in the first quarter.
Watson was outstanding, both in the pass game and running the football. He was 22-33 for 207 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions despite the terrible throwing conditions with strong winds. I asked Deshaun how much of a factor the wind played in his ability to throw the ball down field, and he said that it was definitely a factor going into the wind and that he had to put a little more on the football going in that direction. Watson might have had his best rushing game of the season. Although he only ran for 47 yards, he averaged 6.7 yards per carry and had 2 rushing touchdowns. In the first quarter, he doubled his rush TD total for the season. Beyond that, it seemed as if he was running with a different resolve than we have seen all season. He was really putting his head down, his foot in the ground and making decisive cuts like we saw so regularly toward the end of last season.
Gallman ran for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 7.3 yards per carry. After several weeks without a 100-yard game, the Wayne Train finally got the 16th of his career, surpassing Raymond Priester atop the Clemson career list. Adam Choice had his best game in several weeks, rushing for 34 yards on 5.7 yards per carry.
Jordan Leggett had another nice game with 3 catches for 50 yards, including a diving effort for a huge 3rd down conversion that led to a touchdown. Mike Williams had the only touchdown catch of the night on a fade route that he and Watson have refined to a science.
The offensive line did a superb job both in run blocking and pass protection, not allowing a single sack in the game—a particularly impressive feat, given that Ejifor is one of the top pass-rushers in the nation, and the Tigers were starting true freshman Sean Pollard at tackle.
Player of the Game: Kendall Joseph
For the first time, I predicted a shutout in last week’s WWAH, and that was before I knew Wake would start its third-string freshman quarterback! The Deacs have had one of the worst offenses all season, and I felt that the Tigers would be looking to redeem themselves for their worst defensive performance against Pitt. The Tigers didn’t get the shutout, but they were dominant. They allowed just 197 yards for the game, which is below the Tigers’ season average. Wake was only 7 of 18 passing for just 126 yards, and the Tigers’ secondary did a good job of avoiding penalties. They were just 2 of 15 on 3rd down, and the Tigers held the Deacs to a field goal after Ray-Ray’s dropped punt gave them a short field on a quick change. The Tigers had 4 sacks, 8 tackles-for-loss and forced 10 punts in the game. I would have liked to see them come up with at least one turnover, though, especially with a completely inexperienced freshman quarterback in the game. They also gave up a couple of big plays, but overall it was a nice rebound from the Pitt debacle.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
Player of the Game: Artavis Scott
Obviously, Ray-Ray’s chronic issues with dropped punts continued on Saturday. In his defense, the windy conditions would have been difficult for anyone to deal with, but it seems like Ray-Ray’s confidence in that part of his game is at an all-time low. He has had several drops throughout the season, and two inside the Tigers’ red zone on the road. Early in the season, Ray-Ray was among the top 5 in the nation in punt return average and was supremely confident both in fielding the football and in his cuts, but he looks like a completely different player on punts now. Even when he catches the ball, it is often while back-peddling, and he has seemed indecisive at times. To Ray-Ray’s credit, he has not let mistakes in the punting game adversely affect his play in the passing game, and he made a couple nice catches following his drop on Saturday. It’s also easy to forget that Ray-Ray is just a true sophomore and missed some games last season after his knee injury. Dabo was emphatic this week in his faith that Ray-Ray will be the best pure punt returner the Tigers have had by the time he leaves Clemson, and we saw glimpse of that early in the season. Ray-Ray’s problem seems to be completely cerebral, not physical, so let’s just hope he can past it sooner rather than later. In the meantime, it leaves the coaches with a decision to make because the post-season is quickly approaching, and that is not the time in which you want to be holding your breath on every punt. Dabo told us that they will continue to evaluate Ray-Ray in practice, but Artavis Scott is clearly the more reliable of the two at catching punts. In my opinion, reliability and ball security is infinitely more important than return skills. Perhaps if the Tigers can build a comfortable lead against the Gamecocks, they can reinsert Ray-Ray on punts in an effort to rebuild his confidence.
Aside from the turnover on the punt, the Tigers were solid on special teams. Huegel did not have a field goal attempt because of the wind, but he was 5-5 on PAT’s and did a good job on kickoffs, with 3 touchbacks on 6 kicks. The coverage unit did a good job outside of a 32-yard return. Teasdall did a nice job as well, averaging 36.5 yards on his 4 punts on a windy night. Artavis Scott had a nice 12-yard punt return after spelling Ray-Ray, but he only had 25 yards on 2 kick returns. Finally, the Tigers partially blocked a punt on special teams and executed an onside kick well, but it was negated by an alignment penalty.
Before I get into Saturday’s big Palmetto Bowl matchup, a quick look at the national landscape and playoff race that is getting very interesting. The Tigers are obviously one of just 3 teams that controls its own destiny. If they win the next two games, they will most likely be ranked #2 or #3 in the final CFP rankings a week from Sunday. However, many seem to think it’s a forgone conclusion that Ohio State will be one of the final four. While I agree that it’s extremely likely Ohio State beats Michigan in Columbus on Saturday, that won’t necessarily seal the deal for Ohio State. If Sparty beats Penn State and Ohio State beats Michigan, Wisconsin could beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship to avenge their blowout loss in 2014 that sent Ohio State to the playoff. That would knock Ohio State out of the playoff picture. Remember, the first game between Wisconsin and Ohio State went to overtime, and Ohio State did not look great last week against Sparty. That game should have gone to overtime too. Everyone is just taking it for granted that Penn State will beat Sparty to force this dilemma on the committee and get two Big Ten teams in, but I won't be surprised at all if Sparty upsets the apple cart and makes life a lot simpler for the committee. If that happens, they would simply take the winner of Ohio State and Wisconsin (assuming it's Wisconsin and not Nebraska) along with Washington (assuming they have just one loss). If Washington were to lose to Wazzou or in the Pac-12 Championship, that would open the door for the Oklahoma/Oklahoma State winner in the Bedlam game. Some food for thought as we enter the final furlong of the College Football Playoff race. One thing is for certain: it’s rivalry week, and we have not seen the last of the chaos before the final rankings are released!
As for the Heisman race, don’t count Watson out just yet. Lamar Jackson is coming off a bad performance in a blowout loss on national television, and that is the last thing voters will remember about him because NO ONE will be watching the Louisville-Kentucky game. Meanwhile, Watson will be on ESPN primetime this week and primetime ABC in the ACC Championship Game. If he puts up huge numbers in those two games with few or no interceptions, suddenly the media will realize that he also set an ACC record with 580 pass yards in the team’s only loss to Pitt. That was completely ignored because of the loss and other chaos that ensued that day, but it’s quite a difference from Lamar Jackson’s poor performance in their blowout loss on the big stage. I’m not saying I will bet against Lamar Jackson, but it could get interesting, folks. It’s a shame that the vote is held before the biggest games of the season. That might have cost Watson a Heisman last year and could do so again this year.
Finally, we’ll post a final list of confirmed visitors for the game for you. As Gary told you in his Radar, the headliner of the prospects will be 2018 DE Xavier Thomas from Florence. He has both Clemson and South Carolina in his final four, and the 5-star prospect has been called the #1 overall recruit for 2018 by some. As always, Gary will have a photo gallery and recruit reactions in Monday’s Recruiting Radar. Remember to consult the Recruiting Radar Screen forum daily for the latest developments on the Clemson recruiting front!
On to the Palmetto Bowl…
This is the 114th meeting between the Clemson and South Carolina series that dates back to 1896. Clemson leads the series 67-42-4 and has won the past two meetings. It is the second-longest running rivalry in the nation at 108 consecutive meetings. Only Minnesota and Wisconsin have played more consecutive years at 110, and that is because the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry was suspended between 1902 and 1908 due to riots between the two fan bases…..Clemson has beaten South Carolina more than any other school. Wake Forest is next at 64 wins….The rivalry was played in Columbia as a part of Big Thursday until 1959. In those first 57 games, Clemson held a 33-21-3 advantage. Since then, the record has been nearly the same, with Clemson holding a 34-21-1 advantage. Overall, the Tigers are 50-32-3 in Columbia and 17-10-1 in Clemson…..Only 3 Clemson quarterbacks have started against and beaten South Carolina. They are Steve Fuller, Homer Jordan and Charlie Whitehurst, who is the only quarterback on either side to win 4 times. Deshaun Watson has an opportunity to join that group and improve to 3-0 against the Gamecocks…..Steve Fuller and Jeff Bostic will serve as honorary captains for Clemson on Saturday. The teammates won 3 straight games against South Carolina from 1976 to 1978. Fuller is the only two-time ACC Player of the Year in Clemson history and was 6th in the 1978 Heisman voting. Fuller’s #4 was the first number to be retired by Clemson and was brought out of retirement for Deshaun Watson with Fuller’s permission. Both players will be together on Frank Howard Field for the first time on Saturday. Bostic was an All-ACC center for 4 straight years from 1976-79. He had a 14-year NFL career and won 3 Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins. He is the only former Tiger to do that…The Clemson senior class has an opportunity to tie the school record for most wins at 46 games. The 2016 seniors are 45-7 overall, which is the best winning percentage in school history (.900). If Clemson beats South Carolina and goes on to win the ACC Championship, it will the 2016 seniors will stand alone with 47 wins and will be the 3rd consecutive class of seniors to set a new school record for wins. The 2016 seniors are also tied with the 2015 senior class for most ACC regular season wins. Both classes had an identical 28-4 record. Both classes have also won 29 ACC games including Championship Games, so if the Tigers win the ACC Championship next week, the 2016 senior class will set a new record at 30 total ACC wins….Clemson has the longest active streak in the AP top 5 at 21 consecutive weeks. Alabama is 2nd at 19 weeks. Clemson and Alabama have each been in the AP top 10 for 24 consecutive weeks, trailing only Ohio State at 35 weeks. Clemson and Alabama are the only two schools to have been ranked in the top 4 of the CFP rankings for 10 consecutive weeks….With the win at Wake Forest last week, the Tigers have won a school-record 10 straight true road games. They have also gone undefeated on the road in consecutive seasons, a first in school history….
It goes without saying that this game is a season unto itself, so the Tigers would be fully focused and bringing their A game even if they didn’t have a National Championship at stake. You know that guys like Ben Boulware, Mike Williams and Jadar Johnson grew up ensconced in the rivalry, but it’s always fun to talk to guys like Christian Wilkins, a New Englander, to find out how much it means to them. You quickly realize that they are as passionate about beating the Gamecocks as those who grew up on the front lines of the state divide. Even Deshaun Watson, a Georgia native, exudes an animosity toward the Gamecocks that is as profound as it gets. He told us when he was a freshman that one of his biggest goals as a collegian was to win every game against South Carolina. He was so steadfast in his resolution to break the unprecedented 5-year losing streak to the Gamecocks that he defied the odds and all human constraints of pain and fear to play on a torn ACL and beat South Carlolina as a true freshman in 2014. To this day, Dabo says it was the most amazing thing he’s seen in sports. The performance probably doesn’t get the national recognition it deserves, but it will live in on forever in the annals of Clemson lore. It’s amazing how one quarterback can make all the difference in reversing the momentum in a rivalry, but the nature of this rivalry is 180 degrees from what it was just 3 years ago. Even though Clemson had a better team and outplayed the Gamecocks in 2013, the Tigers couldn’t get out of their own way from the neck up and found a way to beat themselves. Fast forward just 3 years, and the Tigers enter the Palmetto Bowl with the upper hand supreme confidence, having knocked off the Gamecocks in Columbia last year with a perfect season on the line.
In addition to all the other storylines behind this game, the Clemson seniors are anxious for an opportunity to say goodbye to Death Valley in the right way. The Tigers bounced back from the Pitt loss with a dominant road win at Wake, but they still have a bad taste in their mouth from the game that got away from them on Senior Day a couple of weeks ago, ending the nation’s longest home win streak and a school record at 21 games. This will be the last time running down The Hill and playing in Death Valley not only for the seniors but for junior Mike Williams and probably Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and Artavis Scott. You can bet that all those guys are primed to make themselves some memories in Death Valley on Saturday night! Clemson senior starters:
Boulware talked about how emotional he'll be on Saturday:
Watch Dabo talk about some of the seniors a couple of weeks ago:
The Tigers’ offense has been clicking for weeks now, aside for the 3 interceptions against Pitt. Their 630 yards in that game was the sixth-highest total in school history. In the past 4 games, including 2 road games, they have averaged 42 points per game despite leaving some on the table. Even more encouraging is the way the offensive line blocked at Wake Forest. The Tigers are now ranked #18 in total offense (498.4 yards/game), #9 in passing offense (333.1 yards/game), #76 in rushing offense (165.3 yards/game).
On the other side of the ball, the Pitt game exposed some deficiencies in a Clemson defense that has been dominant all year, but that can only make the Tigers stronger, and they imposed their will on Wake Forest last week. The loss of backup DT Scott Pagano is a slight concern, but next to wide receiver the Tigers’ defensive interior is the deepest unit on the team. In fact, the Tigers seem to be confident enough in the remaining tackles that they haven’t even moved Christian Wilkins back inside, even though Austin Bryant is back at defensive end. I asked Venables if he’s pleased in the play of Albert Huggins since Pagano went down, and he said Albert has responded very well. He also said that Jabril Robinson is much more comfortable now that he’s moved from defensive end back to his natural position at tackle. Of course, starters Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence are one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the nation. The Tigers are ranked #11 in total defense (316.1 yards/game), #15 in pass defense (186.8 yards/game), #23 in rush defense (129.3 yards/game) and #10 in scoring defense (17.9 points/game).
As I alluded to earlier, a position in flux is that of punt returner. I expect Artavis Scott to field punts for most of the game, but the question will be whether we see Ray-Ray on any punts if and when the outcome is in hand.
SOUTH CAROLINA SYNOPSIS
Obviously, it’s a new regime in Columbia, and you have to be impressed with what Muschamp has accomplished in year one, given the personnel with which he was left to work. I don’t think many expected the Gamecocks to beat Tennessee or be bowl eligible this season, and they have done so with a true freshman quarterback who should still be playing high school football. That, of course, is Jake Bentley, son of longtime Byrnes High School Coach Bobby Bentley, who coached Willy Korn. Jake Bentley went to high school in Alabama while his dad was on the staff at Auburn, but you can bet he’s well-acquainted with this rivalry and its importance. In fact, Bentley camped at Clemson, so it won’t even be his first trip to Tiger Town. It’s hard to deny that Bentley has a lot of moxie and is playing beyond his years. The Gamecocks started the season with Perry Orth under center and also gave Brandon McIlwain opportunities before turning to the true freshman. Bentley is now 4-1 since South Carolina burned his red shirt, but his only experience on the road is a 20-7 loss at Florida two weeks ago. I asked Will Muschamp how beneficial that experience was for Bentley—even in a loss—given what he is about to experience in Death Valley on Saturday night. Muschamp said that he thinks it was definitely a positive experience despite the outcome. You don’t want your quarterback’s first experience on the road to come against your rival, that’s for sure. On the season, Bentley has completed 66.2% of his passes for 989 yards, 6 touchdowns and one interception. He is not much of a threat to run the ball.
The Gamecocks’ running game is by committee. David Williams is the veteran of the group. He has 239 yards on 4.3 yards per carry and 3 touchdowns. Redshirt freshman A.J. Turner has 433 yards on 4.4 yards per carry and 2 touchdowns. True freshman Rico Dowdle is the most talented of the group and has really come on late, after missing the first 4 games with a hernia. Despite the late start, he leads the team with 684 yards on 5.9 yards per carry and 6 touchdowns.
Deebo Samuel is probably the Gamecocks’ most dangerous WR, but he is yet to score a touchdown this season. He leads the team, though, with 41 catches for 579 yards. K.C. Crosby leads the team in touchdown receptions with 4. The Gamecocks’ entire team only has 8 touchdown receptions for the season. By comparison, true sophomore Deon Cain has 9 touchdowns on only 28 catches!
South Carolina is ranked #114 in total offense (347.2 yards/game), #91 in passing offense (206.7 yards/game), #106 in rushing offense (140.5 yards/game) and #118 in scoring offense (20.4 points/game).
Defensively, South Carolina is much-improved under Muschamp, who is obviously reputed for his defensive background. The Gamecocks are led by Darius English, who has 9 sacks on the season. He also leads the team with 11.5 tackles-for-loss. South Carolina is ranked #50 in total defense (387.6 yards/game), #17 in pass offense (189.1 yards/game), #86 in rush defense (198.5 yards/game) and #27 in scoring offense (22.0 points/game). The key matchup in this game could be the Gamecocks’ pass defense against the Tigers’ passing game. It will be strength-on-strength. If the Tigers can establish the running game against a South Carolina run defense, it should really open some things up in the passing game for Watson, Williams, Cain and company to exploit. Watson will have to really make good decisions, though, and avoid interceptions, as the Gamecocks have collected 13 picks this season—which just happens to be the same number thrown by Watson this year.
Also keep an eye on the turnover battle, though, as it could be the one thing that keeps the Gamecocks in the game. They are tied for 6th in the nation, having forced 24 turnovers, and they are +10 in turnover margin, which is #8 in the nation. By comparison, the Tigers are -1 in turnover margin, and turnovers have been a particular problem for the Tigers in home games. They turned the ball over 5 times in a close win over Louisville, 4 times in a close win over NC State and 3 times in the last-second loss to Pittsburgh, including 2 interceptions in the end zone.
Clemson comes into this Palmetto Bowl as a 3-touchdown favorite. That’s the biggest point spread for either team that I can remember. Of course, Pitt was also a 3-touchdown dog coming into Death Valley for the first time in program history. However, that was not a night game, and it was not the grudge match that is the Palmetto Bowl. That upset loss to Pitt might have been the best thing that could have happened to the Tigers and the worst thing that could have happened to the Gamecocks. Time will tell on the former, but as far as the latter, I think the Gamecocks are going to absorb the full brunt of the Tigers’ ire after a heartbreaking home loss they hadn’t experienced in 3 years. The raucous night crowd in Death Valley is going to be rocking, and there will be no let-up from the Tigers, playing in their final home game of the season, and for many, their lives.
The Tigers start a new Death Valley win streak that could last for years to come and, in the process, extend the streak against South Carolina to 3 years. It’s another long 365 days for Gamecock fans, as they limp into their bowl game and get to watch the Tigers play for back-to-back ACC Championships and playoff appearances.
The Prowl toward a 16th ACC Title in ’16, a repeat appearance in the College Football Playoff and a second National Championship continues….
CLEMSON 63 South Carolina 17