Keys To Victory Against Clemson
I. Force Proctor To Beat You
The Clemson offense is built around their veteran offensive line and the dynamic running back duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, but the ability (or inability) of quarterback Will Proctor to keep opposing defenses honest with the passing game is what makes the Tigers offense function. In the first half of the season, Proctor masterfully orchestrated Rob Spence's offense by playing efficiently and complementing the Tigers running game to a tee. That balance helped the Tigers statistically boast one of the nation's best offenses on their way to a 7-1 start. However, Proctor has struggled of late, which has directly impacted Clemson's recent slump. Over the past three games, Proctor has combined to throw for 483 yards, 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. Not surprisingly, the Tigers have lost two of those three games, and after averaging over 42 points per outing through the first eight games, they are averaging a mere 13 points in their last three contests.
There is little doubt that the Tigers will have success running the ball on the Gamecocks, as they claim the nation's #5 rushing attack. The key for the Gamecocks will be containing the Tigers vaunted ground game and forcing Proctor to beat them with his arm. Virginia Tech was able to rattle Proctor early in the Hokies 24-7 win over Clemson, and he never seemed to recover. His confidence has been an issue ever since that game, and Maryland, despite claiming the nation's 100th ranked rushing defense at the time, had success by selling out to stop the run and forcing Proctor to beat them. USC will look to duplicate that success on Saturday.
II. Score Touchdowns In The Red Zone
In South Carolina's five losses this season, moving the ball on offense has not been the problem. The Gamecocks have averaged 350 yards of total offense in those five losses, but have only averaged 15 points per contest. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that red zone offense can be the difference between winning and losing a game, and the Gamecocks have learned that the hard way this season. USC currently ranks 10th in the SEC in red zone offense (71%), and they have only managed to score 23 touchdowns in 42 red zone opportunities.
Ironically, red zone offense was the deciding factor in last year's game against Clemson. The Gamecocks had 5 opportunities inside the Tigers 20-yard line, but only managed three field goals in the disappointing 13-9 loss to the Tigers. Steve Spurrier's offense will have to get better production inside the red zone on Saturday for the Gamecocks to have a chance at winning the game, but they will be competing against a stout Clemson defense that ranks 9th in the country in scoring defense at 13.7 points per game. Sidney Rice and Cory Boyd are the Gamecocks main scoring threats this season, as they have combined to score 16 touchdowns on the year, so they will need to find the end zone when the opportunity presents itself.
III. Protect Blake Mitchell
Possibly the biggest advantage the Gamecocks have entering into Saturday's match up is that they are riding the recent momentum of quarterback Blake Mitchell. The junior signal-caller was replaced by Syvelle Newton after the Georgia game due to poor offensive line play, but the pass protection steadily improved throughout the year, and Mitchell reclaimed his starting spot two weeks ago after a stellar second half showing against Arkansas. Over the past ten quarters, Mitchell has completed 60-82 passes (73%) for 876 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception.
Mitchell has been able to accumulate such gaudy numbers due to the pass protection he's received during that stretch. The much maligned Gamecock offensive line has not allowed a single sack on Mitchell over the past ten quarters, but they will face quite possibly their toughest challenge of the season this weekend in All-American defensive end Gaines Adams. Offensive tackles Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorenson will be asked to contain Adams, who is utilized at both defensive end spots throughout the game, and give Mitchell time to function in the pocket. If Mitchell is given time to operate, then the Gamecock offense will likely find success moving the ball in the air, but if faced with constant pressure, Mitchell is prone to make mistakes.
IV. Minimize Clemson's Big Plays
The Clemson offense features several game breaking threats, including tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller and wide receivers Chansi Stuckey and Jacoby Ford. Beyond the ground game, a staple of the Clemson offense is to utilize their playmakers with designed screen passes and quick slants with hopes that they will break a big play. The Gamecock defense, which has survived off a bend-but-don't-break philosophy this season, will have to make sure-tackles on Saturday, and not allow the Tigers to score cheap points.
Linebacker play by Jasper Brinkley, Rodney Paulk, and Yvan Banag, who is filling in for the injured Cody Wells, will be critical against the Tigers. This group must patrol the middle and not allow Davis or Spiller to break into the defensive backfield. The cornerback trio of Fred Bennett, Captain Munnerlyn, and Carlos Thomas must also make sure-tackles, as they will be isolated with one-on-one match ups throughout the game.
V. Win The Field Position Battle
Another key area the Gamecocks have struggled this season is in winning the field position battle. The Gamecocks currently rank in the bottom half of the SEC in both kickoff returns (18.9 avg.) and punt returns (7.6 avg.), which has played a key factor in their poor field position. Even the best offenses often have trouble driving the length of the field, so a big return on special teams and/or forcing turnovers, resulting in a short field, would give the offense a shot in the arm.
On the other side of the ball, Clemson, led by return artist Jacoby Ford, currently ranks 3rd in the country in kickoff returns by averaging nearly 27 yards per return. USC's coverage teams will need to play well, and ideally give the Tigers offense a long field to work with.
Saturday's match up between South Carolina and Clemson will be the 104th meeting on the gridiron between the two Palmetto State schools. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. (EST), and the game will be nationally televised by ESPN.
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