One season was all quarterback Deshaun Watson needed to understand the depth of the Clemson-South Carolina football rivalry.
Growing up in Gainesville, Ga., he preferred Georgia-Florida – as a Florida fan – and didn’t follow the Palmetto State rivalry until Clemson began recruiting him. One of Watson’s high school coaches was a Clemson fan, pained by Carolina’s historic five-game run, so Watson promised he wouldn’t let it continue.
Deshaun Watson 1, Gamecocks 0.
This week will be his first appearance at Williams-Brice Stadium. The nation’s top-ranked team, Clemson is favored to repeat by 17 1/2.
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“For the fans and the people and the respect, just having that for a year of being on top in this state is really big,” Watson said Monday. “It was good to see the Clemson fans happy and very excited. A lot of people come up to me and say they can go to work now smiling and brag to their Carolina co-workers.
“It was pretty cool to hear that.”
To have played in the game as a freshman let alone beaten South Carolina was remarkable in that Watson accomplished it on one healthy leg. A torn ligament in his left knee would require surgery.
Doctors assured Watson, his family and coaches that the knee could not be injured further. A brace was customized and he played virtually the entire game, completing 14 of 19 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns and running for two touchdowns in a 35-17 win.
“I just wanted to finish out the year on a good note,” said Watson, reminding that he had fractured a collarbone during spring practice and missed time during the season with a bone fracture in his passing hand.
“My year was up and down with injuries,” he said. “I didn’t want to be that person who holds his team back, so I did what I could and I did pretty good.”
Coach Dabo Swinney was criticized for playing him.
“It was my decision,” Watson said. “It’s not like we’re in pee-wee or middle school ball. This is collegiate football, so I’m old enough to make my own decisions. I wanted to play and he said if I was capable of going out there and making plays then I can go out there. I didn’t really think too much about it because a week later I was going to have surgery.”
From the moment he stepped on the field last season for one series at Georgia, Watson’s ability to influence his teammates’ confidence has been a constant. By the South Carolina game there was a sense that with him they could end the streak.
“They really weren’t tense about the game. They were comfortable, they were excited and they just had that belief and that trust in the players around them that they could turn (this) around,” he said. “That’s what we did. The seniors led us. All those guys playing in the NFL now were a big part of that.”
Watson doesn’t think people fully appreciate the work required to reach this point this quickly. Clemson continued to lead the media and coaches polls this week and for the third week lead the College Football Playoff committee’s top 25. Watson was named ACC offensive back of the week for the fourth time and he’s in the thick of Heisman Trophy conversations..
“It took a lot of time and sacrifice and just a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears, to wake up early in the morning and go to rehab then go to class and see my teammates out there especially in the spring playing when I’m just sitting there watching,” he said.
“Just having those nine months off was very hard for me. Now it’s paying off.”
Watson claimed he didn’t know South Carolina’s record and empathized. He’s not likely to cut the Gamecocks any slack.
“There’s nothing new for us. We’re the number one team in the country for a reason and we know everyone is gunning for us,” he said. “If we just play to our standard no one can match us.”
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