On the line for the Gamecocks is a going away present for Lou Holtz, who may be coaching in his last game in the Clemson/South Carolina rivalry. Let's take a look at the 5 keys to the game:
1. One Trick Ponies
Clemson and South Carolina have one common denominator that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game Saturday: Both have one trick ponies on offense that make a majority of the big plays in the passing game.
For Clemson, that pony is senior Airese Currie who leads the ACC in receptions, averaging six catches per game for a 14.2 yard average. Currie has been unquestionably Clemson's go-to guy the entire year.
For South Carolina, that pony is junior Troy Williamson, who is averaging 20.2 yards per reception and 80.9 yards of receiving per game. Williamson leads the SEC in yards receiving per game and is 7th in receptions per game.
The Gamecocks' best offensive play this entire year has been the go route to Williamson where he plays jump ball with the defenders ala Rod Gardner of Clemson several years ago. And certainly, that will once again be a mainstay in the Gamecocks' offense on Saturday.
There is nothing on the table to think that Currie and Williamson won't get their catches on Saturday just like they have most of the season.
The team that is going to win this game Saturday, however, is the team that can have somebody other than their big play receiver step up and make some plays. The Tigers have searched all year for that playmaker in the passing game, with Chansi Stuckey, Curtis Baham and the much maligned Kelvin Grant all showing brief glimpses of greatness.
The Gamecocks also have a couple of guys in Noah Whiteside and Matthew Thomas who are more than capable of making a big play.
So the question begs….who is going to step up as a wide receiver on Saturday? The answer to that will point you in the direction as to which team will win.
2. Middle of the Pack
I thought I was watching an ESPN Classic replay of the Clemson/South Carolina game from last year Saturday night. But it wasn't the Tigers that were chewing up big yardage in the passing game over the middle of the field versus the Gamecocks. It was Chris Leak and the Florida Gators.
Trying to pin-point what the Gamecock's problems over the middle are is a difficult thing to do. Their freshman safety, Ko Simpson, is generally regarded as their best defensive back and he leads the SEC in interceptions (6). Their linebackers were all highly recruited guys, but may be lacking in some speed. Rod Wilson, Marcus Lawrence, and Ricardo Hurley, and Lance Laurey have all had a decent if not spectacular year for the Gamecocks.
But for whatever reason, the Gamecocks have a terribly soft underbelly. The Gamecocks are only giving up 20 points per game (5th in the SEC), but are also giving up 207 yards through the air, which is only good for 8th best in the SEC. Considering the Gamecocks have only played two teams (Tennessee and Florida) that like to throw the ball, those numbers are not good.
So it seems easy: exploit the middle of the field and you will have success against the Gamecocks. But it's not that easy. The reason for that is Clemson has rarely exploited the middle of the field this year and even fewer times have the Tigers gone to tight end Ben Hall over the middle.
So what gives Saturday afternoon? Will the Gamecocks shore up the middle of the field and find a way to scheme defensively to stop the bleeding? Will Clemson even try to exploit this obvious weakness?
My guess is that Clemson will take some shots down the middle to test the waters. Expect a pass or two to Hall and expect crossing patters to Currie and Stuckey. Then expect the deep post to Currie or Grant right up the middle of the field. Will it work? Gamecock fans say it will based on what they have seen this year. I'll believe it when I see it.
3. Force the Pass
It's a good thing that Lou Holtz has played four quarterbacks at different times this year. It's good because his best two have been snake-bitten with injuries. Dondrial Pinkins is expected to play if his rotator cuff gets healthy enough that he can throw a vertical pass. Syvelle Newton should play despite having a banged up leg late in the game against the Gators.
And don't be stunned if you see Mike Rathe show up for a series or two.
Regardless of who is actually in at quarterback, a key to this game will be the Tigers ability to stop the run. Demetris Summers, if he ever gets the ball more than ten times a game, is a big time threat with loads of ability and natural talent. Cory Boyd is lighting quick and runs even harder than Summers. The two combined have the potential to control the game and the Gamecocks are averaging 179 yards per game on the ground (4th best in the SEC).
The good news is that Clemson has been pretty darn good against the run since the Virginia game. After giving up 200+ yards per game early in the season, the Clemson defense has trimmed that down to an average of 142 yards per game for the season. The Tigers has also gone from dead last in ACC rushing defense to a respectable 7th in the ACC in rush defense.
Expect Holtz to try and control the game on the ground Saturday ala 2001, which is the last time the Gamecocks beat Clemson. If the Gamecocks can pick up first downs on the ground and not rely on the unpredictable throwing of Newton/Pinkins/Rath/Mitchell then the Tigers are in for a long day.
But if the Gamecocks cannot run the ball successfully Saturday, Clemson has a chance to win and win big.
4. Long Field
One of the main reasons Clemson lost to Duke last week is that the Blue Devils were given short fields on their scoring drives. In fact, if you look at four of the five Clemson losses closely you will see that turnovers and special teams' blunders have been at the root of the losses for Clemson because of field position.
Conversely, all five of Clemson's wins came when the other teams gave the Clemson offense short fields either because their offense could not move the ball or because of turnovers and special teams play.
The Tiger defense is playing good enough to slow any offense down, especially one as erratic and conservative as South Carolina's. But that defense can't do it if given short fields over and over again.
On offense, Clemson has had a brutal time trying to drive the ball great distances this year, an there is nothing in the water that makes me think the Tigers can consistently go up and down the field on the Gamecocks. The Tigers need a short field to get some points, or the Tigers won't score many points…it's as easy as that.
So it is a cliché, but turnovers will play a major part in the outcome Saturday. Special teams will also play a major part in this game. For maybe the first time all year, Clemson was outplayed and outsmarted on special teams against Duke. Let's see if the Tiger coaches make changes in the special teams to allow for Justin Miller and Airese Currie to get their hands on the ball.
Whomever plays on the short field most of the afternoon Saturday is going to win. Neither offense is good enough to score otherwise, so a heavy emphasis will be placed on picking up first downs, making good punts, and defending the return game. And, oh yea, not turning the ball over.
5. Pounce Early
This South Carolina team is of fragile mind these days. Part of that can be attributed to the fact the Gamecocks have had a hard time winning in November the past two years. Part of that is because the Gamecocks got whipped 63-17 by Clemson last year. Part of that is the Gamecocks are coming off a whipping in Florida that reminded everybody in the state of the 63-17 game against Clemson last year.
And part of that is because Lou Holtz has played a curious song and dance with the media the past few weeks. He decided to tell the media he was tired and probably needed to retire and that Steve Spurrier would be a good choice as his replacement. He then decided to pump up his record and accomplishments at South Carolina as if he were trying to leave with his legacy intact. Then he spent the past two weeks telling reporters he did not want to talk about it.
I don't think many within the program know what is going on in Holtz's head, and I most certainly will not try to dissect it. What I do know is that the Gamecock ego is fragile because of all the reasons I gave above.
If the Gamecocks come out and take a lead or stay close for the first half, this is going to be a four quarter brawl. But if the Gamecocks have some misfortune early and fall behind by two scores or more, look out.
Their team is not equipped, by its very nature, to come back from big deficits. It's also a road game, and coming from behind is always difficult. But if you are Clemson you would love for those doubts from last year to seep back into the player's head if they were to fall behind the Tigers. A raucous crowd would compound the problem, and the Gamecocks would be as good as done.
In many ways, it happened last week in The Swamp. And all that negative emotion would be compounded because of what happened last year in Columbia.
Expect Clemson to come out firing. The Tigers will blitz early and often on defense. Clemson will probably have a few new plays to break out to try and get a cheap score on offense. And once again special teams could create a spark.
Clemson most certainly will try to get up early. And if they do the Tigers will win…there is just too much mojo to expect otherwise.
Analysis and Prediction
I have a nasty, ugly lump in my stomach thinking about this game. South Carolina is going bowling, probably going to get Steve Spurrier as their next coach, and are playing to salvage Lou Holtz's legacy at South Carolina.
Clemson is pinned against the wall, needing to beat the Gamecocks to become bowl eligible. After building confidence since the Utah State game, the Tigers fell flat in Durham and the doubts about the offense are once again at the forefront.
Is it possible that South Carolina can win this game big? I doubt it. The Gamecocks have not proven the ability to put teams away when they have them down. And with the game in Clemson, I doubt the Gamecocks could pull away.
Is it possible Clemson could win the game big? In theory, yes. Things could snowball on the Gamecocks similar to what happened last year if the Tigers can find some early success. But Clemson has yet to blow anybody out this year, and all of Clemson's wins (minus Utah State) have come down the last play of the game.
And I think that is exactly what will happen Saturday. It is going to be low scoring, mainly because neither offense is very good. And it is going to come down to a big play in the turnover or special teams department.
My gut and heart say Clemson falls Saturday to the overdue Gamecocks and Lou Holtz. But my fingers can't bare to type it because I don't want to think about an off-season without a bowl game with a loss to USC hanging over me.
Clemson 17 South Carolina 13
5 Keys to Victory
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