Following Saturday's 27-17 loss to rival South Carolina, it's fourth consecutive in the series, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney would have loved to be anywhere else than standing behind a podium fielding questions about why his team couldn't get over the hump and end the losing streak to their hated rivals.
"It's a hurting locker room," Swinney said. "The fun's in winning and there certainly wasn't any fun in that locker room tonight. It's been quite a while since we've lost one here at home and experience a locker room like that here at home."
It had been quite a while since the Tigers had experienced the pain of losing in Memorial Stadium. Clemson was just one win away from going 7-0 at home for the second season in a row and extend their record 13-game winning streak to 14. Instead, Clemson found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard against the team now responsible for its last two losses at home.
"The fun is in the winning and we just didn't do what we needed to tonight," Swinney said. "We dropped a lot of passes and interceptions and their third down conversions killed us. We just couldn't get in an offensive rhythm."
The third quarter ended up being the decisive quarter in a game that Clemson felt they were in great position at halftime. Clemson held a 14-10 lead heading to the locker room in a half where they scored twice in their first three possessions. Despite being known for their quick strike ability, Clemson has had plenty of ball control scoring drives and both were on display in the first quarter. On their second drive of the game the Tigers went on a 16-play drive that covered 85 yards. They showed their ability to run the ball on the drive with 11 plays on the ground, including Tajh Boyd's three yard run to cap off the drive. Clemson converted four third downs on the drive, including a 22-yard pass on 3rd-and-15 and Boyd's scoring play. On their following drive, it took the Tigers just two plays to score with Boyd hitting DeAndre Hopkins for a 43-yard score.
"We got off to a good start scoring two touchdowns in the first quarter but they just started to control the ball after that," Swinney said. "Give them credit, they did a great job."
After holding the Tigers on their final four possessions of the half, South Carolina's offense took the game over in the second half. Carolina opened the half on a 10-play drive that was capped off with a touchdown pass from Dylan Thompson to Ace Sanders on a third-and-long to give Carolina their first lead of the game.
"We had 40 snaps at the half," Swinney said. "It felt like we had a decent mode of rhythm and were holding our own and keeping them off-balanced. We felt pretty good about our running game, we had about 100 yards rushing or so at the half, so we had a lot to be encouraged about. Then they go out in the opening drive of the third quarter and hold the ball forever. That was a very big drive. Not only did they get points, but our offense has been sitting there a long time since the end of the second quarter and I thought it affected our rhythm a little bit."
After having to watch the long drive from the sidelines, the Tiger offense was held to a three-and-out, and Carolina went on its second drive that again took 3:08 off the clock and was capped off by an Adam Yates field goal. Those two drives took it out of the Tigers and they never fully recovered.
"We couldn't get the ball in the third period," Swinney said. "We just couldn't stop them on third down. The third quarter was huge. We had too many penalties, too many turnovers and South Carolina did a great job of controlling the ball.
"They disrupted our rhythm. You have to give them a lot of credit."
With an offense struggling to find its rhythm in the second half it was only a matter of time before the defense broke. It finally did late in the fourth quarter. Thompson, filling in for starting quarterback Connor Shaw, did his best Charlie Whitehurst impersonation, running a draw on 3rd-and-19 and getting just enough for the first down on a play that appeared to be ran in slow motion. Three plays later Thompson found Bruce Ellington in the back of the end zone to effectively put the game out of reach. Thompson finished the game 23-of-41 for 310 yards and three touchdown passes with one interception. He also ran the ball for 38 yards despite being sacked four times.
"We couldn't disrupt him," Swinney said of Thompson. "He threw the ball incredibly well. He was the difference in the game. We just couldn't turn the momentum. Overall, you have to give them credit. They made just enough plays and ran the ball just enough to keep us off balance."
For Clemson's senior class, they are first group of Clemson players to never know the joy of victory over their rivals since the 1954 class.
"Obviously losing to South Carolina four times in a row is extremely disappointing," Swinney said. "That's a hurting group of seniors down there. It's something that everybody has to live with.
"I just want to apologize to our fan base, to our seniors, to everyone. I really appreciate the environment that these fans have created these past few seasons. This loss really hurts."
Swinney: "This loss hurts"
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