5 Keys To Whipping The Gamecocks

The most important football game of the season commences Saturday night in Williams-Brice Stadium as the Tigers and the Gamecocks meet for the 101st time.

Clemson leads the series 60-36-4 overall and 27-17-2 at Williams Brice Stadium. Since 1981, the team that held the best record between the two has won 16 out of the 19 games.

South Carolina enters Saturday's game 5-6 overall and 2-6 in the SEC. The Gamecocks have defeated Louisiana Lafayette (14-7), Virginia (31-7), Alabama Birmingham (42-10), Kentucky (27-21), and Vanderbilt (35-24).

Comparing Clemson and South Carolina's 2 common opponents shows the Tigers and Gamecocks both lost to Georgia (30-0 and 31-7). And both teams defeated Virginia (30-27 and 31-7).

Here are my 5 keys to the Tigers getting a big win Saturday night.

Keep Pinkins Himself
It's almost silly to have one of your keys to the game to rest on hoping a player of the opposing team simply plays to his ability level, but that is exactly what I'm doing here. For the season, Dondrial Pinkins is completing only 50% of his passes and averaging only 184 yards per game in leading the South Carolina Gamecocks to the worst team in the SEC in terms of passing efficiency.

Pinkins seems to have problems when he has to make quick decisions, even though he only has thrown 8 interceptions on the year. While there haven't been a lot of turnovers, there are a good number of passes that would likely be considered non-catchable by his receivers when pressured. In addition, Pinkins also seems to have difficulty in locating the open receiver when flushed from the pocket.

What Clemson must do Saturday night is keep Pinkins off balance by mixing coverages and blitzes to keep him from ever getting comfortable. If he gets into a zone, the Tigers will struggle defensively because most of the concern in defending the Gamecocks is with their running game. If he fails to find that rhythm, the Gamecocks will no doubt go home losers Saturday night.

Attack Via the Air
The South Carolina secondary is giving up a pretty hefty 193 yards per game through the air in a conference that is dominated by run oriented teams. With the exception of Ole Miss, almost everybody has attacked the Gamecocks via the ground because that is what those teams do best.

However, there are cracks in the Gamecock secondary. Dunta Robinson is a good, if unspectacular, corner. Deandre' Eiland is dependable, but a step below Robinson. The safeties are unproven at best, with Taqiy Muhammand, Jamacia Jackson, Jermaine Harris, and Cory Peoples splitting time.

Remember the term "umbrella zone" from last year? Well get familiar with it again, because the Tigers should see some more of it Saturday evening.

The Gamecocks won't be lining up to often to play much press/man coverage with Robinson and Eiland, so there should be a soft underbelly in the Gamecock secondary. Certainly, the Tigers' coaching staff will try and exploit that underneath area with slants, curls, and dump passes to Duane Coleman.

All the while, the Gamecock safeties will be creeping up to the line of scrimmage and that will open the door up for Clemson to take a few shots down the field to Kevin Youngblood and Airese Currie (if he plays).

Without question, the Tigers must attack vertically to keep the underneath patterns open. And, not only must Clemson attack vertically, they must find some success when doing so. Throwing long, incomplete passes down the field is not going to tip the Gamecock's hand. The Tigers are going to have to have some early success, and if they do, it may be difficult for South Carolina to recover.

Avoid the Clock Draining
Two years ago, South Carolina was able to control the ball on offense and the consequence of that was the Gamecocks killed the Tigers in the time of possession category. Last year, it was almost the exact opposite as the Tigers were the ones controlling the clock at the end of the game.

As crazy as it sounds, I'd rather the Gamecocks connect on a couple of big play scores instead of long, time consuming drives. If you remember, the Gamecocks got a couple of big plays out of Troy Williamson last year but the Tigers still won the game 27-20.

The Clemson offense needs "at bats" to get into a groove and set up the entire playbook. It almost goes without saying that keeping Charlie Whitehurst and company on the sidelines is about the worst thing that can happen Saturday.

Defensively, you don't want to give South Carolina anything cheap. But, I'd rather see the Tigers play risky defenses to try and make plays while not allowing the Gamecocks to dink and dunk down the field running the football. That risky defense could include blitzing, playing man coverage to devote more players to the running game, and stunts to try and get more pressure on Dondrial Pinkins.

If this aggressive defense allows the Gamecocks to get a couple of cheap scores, so be it. I'm okay with the cheap scores here and there if the majority of the Gamecock drives are 3-6 plays in length, thus getting the Tiger offense on the field many, many times.

There will be opportunities Saturday night for the Tigers. Opportunities when the Tiger offense gets into the red zone. Opportunities to make an interception. Opportunities to pick up a fumble. And opportunities to get a big return.

College football in 2003 comes down to making plays, and the Tigers will have that opportunity Saturday night because of the talent advantage they have over the South Carolina Gamecocks. Clemson must take advantage of each and every one of them.

Red zone scoring, a broken record key for the past few weeks, will once again be at the forefront of the Tigers' needs. Defensively, Pinkins will make a mistake or two and Tye Hill and Justin Miller must make him pay when he does. And Clemson has two outstanding athletes returning kicks and punts and the Tigers must find a way to give those guys enough space to make a huge play.

It may be too much to ask that the Tigers capitalize on every one of these categories. However if Clemson can come close to doing so, this game will not be close Saturday night.

Rally For Your Leader?
Tommy Bowden's emotional Tuesday press conference showed he truly cared about his status as the head coach at Clemson University. And because of Bowden's sometimes-aloof nature, that was not a forgone conclusion to many Clemson fans.

It is now.

The Clemson Nation has made it pretty clear they are behind Tommy Bowden and this team, and I expect a very vocal Tiger following in Columbia Saturday night.

The players rallied around Tommy after the Wake game and the result was a near perfect football game against the Florida State Seminoles. Can this process be duplicated?

How much do these players believe in Tommy Bowden and this staff? Indications after the FSU game were that they were believers. Their coach finds himself still backed up against the wall, getting no relief from the wins over FSU and Duke. I'd like to think that these players could still make an impact on Bowden's future at Clemson by going out and winning Saturday night.

More importantly, I think the players realize they still hold a card in Bowden's future. And with a win Saturday night, they can play that card to Terry Don Phillips. Players rallying around a coach are often times inspiring enough to take the quality of play to a higher level. The South Carolina game does not need much more of a power boost, but the players could provide just that Saturday night for their coach, Tommy Bowden.

At the start of this season, I thought South Carolina and Lou Holtz were due to win against the Tigers. Midway through the season, I saw nothing that changed my feelings. After the press conference Tuesday, I abruptly changed my tune.

Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, they are playing a team that is slightly better than they are with a motive that is greater than that of their own. South Carolina players have the bitterness of the loss last year to put into their basket. The Gamecock players have Holtz's 1-3 record versus Tommy Bowden to rally around. And the Gamecock players have the fact that they need to win to get to a bowl game to rally around.

None of those incentives match what faces the Tiger football players stuck in the middle of a coaching soap opera. Much like the emotion of the Tommy West dismissal during the South Carolina week 5 years ago, there is a major rallying point for this team to add to all the other incentives.

It would be near impossible for Hollywood to write a better script than would be the reality of Clemson winning Saturday night. It would be the stuff of Oscar nominations, but it would also be the reality that stares this team in the eyes and tugs at their hearts.

Clemson won't lose this game. Partly because they are better than South Carolina, but mostly because they are playing for much, much more than mere bragging rights.

Rhymer's Pick
Clemson 24 South Carolina 19

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