USC vs. Clemson: How they stack up, position by position

pstrelow@thestate.com, jperson@thestate.comNovember 27, 2009 

  • SOUTH CAROLINA VS. CLEMSON

    107th meeting: Tigers (8-3) at Gamecocks (6-5)

    WHEN: Noon Saturday

    WHERE: Williams-Brice Stadium

    LINE: Clemson by 3

    TV: ESPN (TWC 26/DTV 206/DISH 140)

    RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5, ESPN 93.1 FM

    ONLINE: Seth Emerson blogs live from the game Saturday at gogamecocks.com

There isn't a line of USC players and coaches waiting to exit. Nor is Clemson fighting for bowl eligibility as its coaching staff scratches to save its jobs.

Compared to the Tigers' 31-14 thumping of the Gamecocks in Death Valley last season, this year's contest is a portrait in stability

But there are still plenty of subplots. Can USC prevent C.J. Spiller from popping momentum-swinging plays - or posting a signature moment in his Heisman Trophy candidacy? Will the Tigers, having punched their ticket to next week's ACC championship game, be the same team that has won six straight?

For once, the drama centers on the action on the field.

The State examines how the teams stack up, position by position:

Quarterback

USC:

He still holds on to the ball too long and takes unnecessary sacks, but Stephen Garcia has exceeded expectations in his first full season as a starter. Garcia has cut back on his turnovers and is the SEC's second-leading passer behind Arkansas' Ryan Mallett. And he's gotten up from a number of jarring hits that would have sidelined other quarterbacks.

Clemson:

If you had to peg Clemson's six-game win streak on one element, it would by Kyle Parker's maturation and development. During that span, he has completed 63.2 percent of his passes, thrown 14 touchdown to four interceptions and made the difference-making plays.

Edge: Even.

Running backs

USC:

After bringing in a couple of new coaches to oversee a revamped running attack, the Gamecocks are back where they were the past two seasons - at the bottom of the SEC in rushing. The sacks have hurt the rushing numbers, but USC still lacks an elite tailback. Brian Maddox has reclaimed the starting job, but fans hope Marcus Lattimore will be the back of the future.

Clemson:

Heisman Trophy finalist or not, C.J. Spiller has no equal as the college game's most electrifying talent. Yet Spiller's nagging turf toe has meant significant action for backups Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper, and Ellington in particular has proven a dynamic threat. Fullback Chad Diehl had a career day doling out lead blocks out of the I-formation against USC last year.

Edge: Clemson

Receivers/tight ends

USC:

There is no true go-to receiver in the mold of Kenny McKinley or Sidney Rice, although freshman Alshon Jeffery has made a strong case to be that guy. The Gamecocks have quality depth in their receiving rotation, with five players with at least 24 catches. Tight end Weslye Saunders is a big weapon who has been under-utilized much of the season.

Clemson:

Jacoby Ford is the headliner, although he's frequently not used as a feature guy. In the clutch, the ball will going to reliable tight end Michael Palmer. There's not much depth, but the rotation is comprised of dependable pass-catchers and blockers.

Edge: USC.

Offensive line

USC:

The fact that walk-on guard Garrett Chisolm joined the team after preseason camp and now is starting speaks to the mess first-year offensive line coach Eric Wolford inherited. The Gamecocks no longer get dominated along the line of scrimmage, but pass-blocking remains an issue. Garcia has been sacked an SEC-high 33 times.

Clemson:

The knock on this group is that it still doesn't generate much push at the line of scrimmage. But it has steadily held its own in other regards, protecting Parker and executing assignments well enough to spring the backs for a bevy of big runs. LT Chris Hairston and LG Thomas Austin are the leaders.

Edge: Clemson.

Defensive line

USC:

Injuries and suspensions have kept the line from developing cohesion. USC lost one of its best run-stuffers when Travian Robertson went down with a knee injury, while defensive end Cliff Matthews looked like his shoulder was still bothering him against Florida. Coaches hope Clifton Geathers' huge game against the Gators was a breakthrough for a player with an NFL body.

Clemson:

The front has accounted for 22 of the team's 33 sacks. Da'Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp have the name recognition, but the Tigers have 10 players in the rotation. Arguably the strongest and deepest part of the team, the can be overagressive.

Edge: Clemson.

Linebackers

USC:

Eric Norwood, one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, manages to leave his mark on every game, be it through a sack, blocked kick or his menacing presence. Shaq Wilson supposedly was too small to fill in adequately for injured middle backer Rodney Paulk, but the 5-11, 210-pounder leads USC with 73 tackles.

Clemson:

Only two linebackers play regularly because of both scheme and lack of depth. Kavell Conner excels in run support, and middle backer Brandon Maye handles the pre-snap responsibilitiescoordinator Kevin Steele's defense. But neither handles pass coverage well, and Maye has collected some costly personal fouls of late.

Edge: USC.

Secondary

USC:

Playing mostly zone coverage behind young corners Stephon Gilmore and Akeem Auguste, the Gamecocks have the nation's seventh-best pass defense. While USC does not give up many big plays, it does not make many, either. Defensive backs have two of the team's five interceptions, with none from the safeties.

Clemson:

The Tigers are tied for second nationally with 20 interceptions, 13 of which have come from ball-hawking safeties DeAndre McDaniel and Rashard Hall. The top three corners are seasoned vets. Steele's reliance on man coverage has increased both the reward and risks, leaving the defense vulnerable to big plays off crossing or fade routes.

Edge: Even.

Special teams

USC:

The Gamecocks have never really solved their kickoff coverage problems. USC has allowed two touchdown returns of at least 99 yards, while Adam Yates has one touchback. Now the Gamecocks get to deal with C.J. Spiller. Yates needs to practice his pop-up kicks ... or his tackling form.

Clemson:

Opponents have steered clear of Spiller's return prowess, allowing Clemson to start its average drive at the 38-yard-line. On the other hand, the Tigers have struggles with extra points and field goals.

Edge: Even.

Coaching

USC:

Despite an offense that has not scored more than 16 points in the past five games, Steve Spurrier has downplayed concerns about the play-calling. Spurrier took over the role from son Steve Spurrier Jr. against No. 1 Florida and might let quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus call the plays next season. Mangus has done well hastening Garcia's development.

Clemson:

It took until the Maryland debacle for the offensive coaches to reassess their methodology, but coordinator Billy Napier has had the magic touch since. Steele has excelled at taking away the opposing offense's strength, and coach Dabo Swinney has pushed the right motivational buttons throughout the year.

Edge: Even.

Intangibles

USC:

USC is in another late-season tailspin, but there have no outward signs of the locker room division that helped doom the 2008 season. Credit leaders such as Norwood and Moe Brown, who were freshmen when USC won at Death Valley. At some point, the Gamecocks have to string a couple wins together against Clemson.

Clemson:

When you beat an opponent 10 of the past 12 times, as Clemson has done in the rivalry, it's hard to discount the mental approach. But the Tigers have never had to prepare for USC with next week's ACC championship looming.

Edge: Clemson.

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