The drive to New Orleans took an unscheduled detour Saturday night.
Instead of a holiday in the French Quarter, the Clemson football season could end in Atlanta or perhaps one of those cookie cutter bowls in Florida.
Playing with a backup quarterback, South Carolina exposed every flaw Clemson disguised in winning 10 of its first 11 games and turned the Tigers’ extraordinary season into something less.
“We had the BCS right in our hands,” cornerback Xavier Brewer said. “We weren’t able to take care of business and go out and get it.”
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South Carolina (10-2), ranked 12th in the BCS, ran its historic win streak in the instate rivalry to four, matching the record set by Gamecock teams from 1951-54, holding Clemson’s vaunted offense to 26 points and 200 yards below its average.
It was Clemson’s lowest point total and second worst offensive game of the season and the lowest production since last year’s game in Columbia.
“We were pressing too hard,” senior center Dalton Freeman said. “This offense is built on a rhythm, or you try to get a spark. When you don’t have a spark, it’s tough.”
Brewer thought he had provided the spark when, down by three early in the fourth quarter, he intercepted Dylan Thompson in the end zone.
“I definitely felt it was (a big play),” said Brewer, a senior who delivered one of his finest games in his final appearance in Death Valley. Brewer led Clemson with 12 tackles and had two tackles for loss. including a sack. But he lamented “some missed opportunities” to get USC off the field.
“It hurts,” he said. “It’s hard when you’re on the field for so many plays. It wears on you. We couldn’t get enough stops.”
Brewer admitted he was surprised “a little bit” with Dylan Thompson’s effectiveness, particularly gaining 75 yards on the ground.
“It’s all on us,” he said. “We’ve got to rush better. We’ve got to cover better.”
The flip side, of course, was the Clemson offense which seemed to establish an identity with its second and third possessions, driving 85 yards on 16 plays for a 7-0 lead then hitting two big plays for a 14-7 lead. Other than a six-play drive for a field goal in the third quarter, Clemson was held without a touchdown and limited to 168 yards the final three quarters.
“I think it was a tale of two halves, to be honest with you,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “I think the first half, we had everything like we wanted ... great tempo, and I thought we were playing at a high level.
“The second half, I think we came and would say we were limited on opportunities,” he said. “We didn’t capitalize on them.”
Morris agreed there was no rhythm in the second half.
“We didn’t come prepared all the way,” said quarterback Tajh Boyd, who fell from the fringe of the Heisman Trophy conversation with his worst performance since last year’s game against USC.
“We got out of our game plan a little bit,” said Boyd, who entered the game No. 2 nationally in passing efficiency yet completed 11 of 24 for 183 yards and threw two interceptions. “We got into a situation where we had to dig ourselves out of some holes.”
Clemson (10-2), ranked 11th in the BCS, was all but assured a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
After losing a grip on their fate, the Tigers await a bowl invitation. If Florida State wins the ACC championship, the Chick-fil-A in Atlanta seems most logical.
“This was a big game for us, and obviously our goal was the BCS and there were a lot of things out there, and it kind of got shot down,” Boyd said. “We do have an opportunity to finish this season strong and have one of the best seasons we’ve had here in a long time.
“So we’ve got to keep working and make sure nobody gets discouraged as we prepare for this bowl game.”