For the Top 10 plays from the season, click here
25. NEED YOUR HEART BACK?
Synopsis: When Clemson came back to tie the game at 17 in the fourth quarter, many figured this would be the year where the Tigers broke their losing streak to South Carolina. Clemson had more talent, and after being knocked on its heels early, had begun to make adjustments. The Gamecocks scored to make it 24-17 but there were nearly 12 minutes to play. Plenty of time for Clemson’s high-octane offense to score and keep scoring. Tajh Boyd got it started with a 12-yard pickup on third-and-12, then saw Roderick McDowell gash USC for 22 yards on third-and-3. Inside the USC 35-yard-line, Boyd called his own number, first for a yard and then for 3 more. But on that second gain, he found a hole up the middle and was met on his side by Chaz Sutton. Sutton locked a forearm as big as a Christmas ham on the ball in Boyd’s right arm, and straight ripped it out before Boyd could even think about collapsing to the turf or getting his knee down. It was gone so fast that nobody seemed too clear on what happened – except for the gleeful Gamecocks pointing at their end zone, and the Tigers’ players, coaches and fans thinking the same thought. “Here we go again.”
Why it ranks: That was the point where the Gamecocks had their best opportunity to put Clemson away, and it led to another after the ensuing drive went nowhere.
24. HOG GONE
Synopsis: USC was leading 17-7 and driving against Arkansas, but faced a fourth-and-2 on the Razorbacks’ 7 with just 25 seconds in the half. The smart move was to kick, but after USC called timeout to talk, the Gamecocks decided to go for it. That caused Arkansas to call timeout, giving the Gamecocks another chance to think it over – but they still wanted to go for it. Connor Shaw ran for 3 yards and a first down. Two plays later, with 13 seconds on the clock, he found Bruce Ellington for a touchdown.
Why it ranks: The game was obviously a rout, but that call and then that touchdown punched Arkansas in the gut. Momentum doesn’t often last over halftime. It did in the Ozarks.
23. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
Synopsis: Forgive me for not picking one, since they all meant so much. USC’s powerful running game was being stifled against Clemson, the Tigers’ defensive front squashing Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson to set up long third downs. Shaw, playing in the final home game of his career, shrugged his shoulders, which were getting wider by the second, and motioned for the offense to climb aboard. Third-and-1 in the first, Shaw rushes for 2 yards. Third-and-10, same drive, Shaw finds Damiere Byrd for 14. Third-and-9, first quarter, Shaw runs for 14. Third-and-8, second quarter, Shaw connects with Wilds for 10. Third-and-10, same drive, Shaw rushes for 14. Third-and-6, still same drive, Shaw to Ellington for 29. The Tigers couldn’t stop him. USC ended with 10-of-19 conversions on third down, and another where Shaw rushed for 12 yards on third-and-13, the Gamecocks went for it on fourth down and the Tigers jumped offside. Shaw stuck needle after needle into Clemson’s side and Clemson’s defense never adjusted.
Why it ranks: The defensive and special-teams plays also heavily contributed, but Shaw’s will to pick up third downs when the running game was going nowhere kept Clemson’s offense off the field.
22. WELL I’LL BE SHAW’ED GONE
Synopsis: Vanderbilt wouldn’t go away despite trailing 35-10 in the second half, and after the Commodores cut it to 35-25 in the fourth, the Gamecocks were bailed out by Jimmy Legree’s end-zone interception (ranked much higher on this list). But all wasn’t rosy – Legree had briefly stepped out of the end zone, thinking he had a chance to run for a while, and was ruled down at the 1. USC had to somehow get out of its own goal-post shadow, and there was still 8:41 to go. Following a missed screen pass to Byrd, USC had its standard substitution infraction, marking the ball at the half-inch line. Shaw, again, told his linemen and backs to run forward and knock somebody down – he would take care of the rest. Shaw hit the hole and powered for 9 yards to give the Gamecocks some breathing room.
Why it ranks: That led to him running again on the next play for a first down, and became a 17-play drive. USC didn’t score, but Vanderbilt had less than a minute once it got the ball back.
21. WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN
Synopsis: Only leading Florida 19-14, the Gamecocks couldn’t get a first down after Legree had intercepted a ball to squelch a Gators drive. At the 50, USC called timeout with 26 seconds remaining and knew it had to kick, since first down was 3 yards away. In came punter Tyler Hull, a strong-legged kicker who battled consistency issues all season. During the Florida game, he’d managed a mere 26 and 25 yards on his two previous punts. USC knew it was gambling, but it had to – Hull could at least get the ball somewhat farther downfield, which would give the Gators that many more yards to drive for a game-winning touchdown. Hull caught and dropped the ball onto his foot, and as it soared, the crowd expressed its relief. It was at least going to out-distance the other two. Then it dropped, rolled, bounced and dribbled to a stop. At the 1.
Why it ranks: Blocked, shanked, deflected, landed out-of-bounds, whatever – that punt doesn’t go to the 1, Florida has a lot shorter than 99 yards to go, and a few more seconds than the 12 it had.
20. GOT A TIP FOR YA
Synopsis: USC was slogging through a game at Missouri, unable to get anything going on offense and seeing its defense break just enough. An offside penalty charged to Skai Moore gifted the Tigers a first-and-5 at the Gamecocks’ 11, USC already down 14-0, in the third quarter. Maty Mauk couldn’t connect with Dorial Green-Beckham on a fade to the left corner of the end zone, so on third-and-3, he ran right. Seeing Marcus Lucas on the back edge of the end zone, Mauk threw off his back foot. Victor Hampton, playing the front edge, got his hand up just in time, knocking the ball harmlessly away.
Why it ranks: Even with the throw off the back foot, it had enough juice to get to Lucas, who was behind two defenders in the end zone. He catches that ball, it’s 21-0 Tigers instead of the 17-0 it became on that drive’s field goal, making USC’s comeback that much more difficult.
19. FINGERTIPS PARTS I AND II
Synopsis: The reason that Adam Humphries was on punt return was because Sammy Watkins had fumbled a punt in the season-opener. Clemson had replaced him with Humphries, because the Tigers had a unique view on punts – just catch the ball, we’ve got enough offense to score without benefit of a return, all you have to do is catch it. That meant that the guy back there had hands, not necessarily speed. It was no surprise when Humphries, “Mr. Possession” for his magnificence in catching passes in traffic and turning them into first downs, jogged back to catch a punt during the rivalry game. In a 7-7 game in the first quarter, USC’s offense stalled, so the Gamecocks kicked from their 32. Humphries was all set to catch it, but Martavis Bryant had gotten too far ahead of his man. Bryant saw that he was way too close to Humphries; he flung himself to the left but his arm grazed Humphries’ arms as he was trying to make the catch. The ball bounced off the multiple hands and Moore dove on it. In the fourth, USC got the “Here we go again” fumble but couldn’t get any points from it. Forced to punt, Hull got off a short kick that Humphries had to run forward to catch. He did, and kept running, darting to his left. Freshman Kaiwan Lewis stuck out a hand and managed to rip Humphries’ carrying forearm down, loosening his grasp of the ball. It popped from Humphries’ grasp and hit the turf, and Kwinton Smith textbook-recovered it, sliding to his knees and cradling it like a newborn.
Why it ranks: Each second chance became a USC touchdown. Those 14 points exactly matched the margin of victory.
18. ANY PORT IN A STORM (OR A TIGER DEN)
Synopsis: Shaw gathered his troops around him as the fourth quarter began and told them all to be ready. Whoever was open, whatever last option Shaw had, he would use it if it meant getting this thing under control. Down 17-0 to Missouri, the rest of the Gamecocks might not have believed him, but had to at least admire the kid’s guts after he’d picked up a fourth-and-4 on the same drive. Facing third-and-7, Shaw spied Jerell Adams open. Adams had the body and skill to be an elite tight end, but USC just wasn’t using the tight ends much this year. Adams had only caught five passes all year before the Missouri game. But he was open, and the Gamecocks needed a first down. Shaw nailed him for 17 yards to move the chains.
Why it ranks: Another pickup on the drive that became USC’s first touchdown and started the rally. Four plays, on this drive, rank in the Top 25.
17. HIT THE DIRT!
Synopsis: Flirting with disaster against Kentucky, leading 27-21 and having a lump-in-the-throat moment when Ellington recovered his own fumble on the kickoff, the Gamecocks faced second-and-3 at their own 18. There was far too much time to sit on the ball, but they really didn’t want to take a chance of throwing. Who else would get the ball? Shaw took the snap and took off, speeding past Kentucky defenders like he was Earnhardt and they were the pace car. Thirty-one yards downfield, Shaw saw the secondary coming up to smack him; he slid in safely, despite the nearest third base being a few miles down Bluff Road, and removed any danger of another blow to the head/arm/stomach/knee/foot.
Why it ranks: The run got USC out of its own side of the field and led to a touchdown, which proved to be the back-breaker.
16. BEASTLY BOY
Synopsis: With USC trailing 10-0 at halftime and Shaw out of the game, Gamecock fans were fidgety. The game was clearly still there to be won, but why was Steve Spurrier insisting on continuing to throw the football? Dylan Thompson was off his game and Shaw wasn’t coming back. The running game had been stalled as well, Davis held to a mere 17 yards on five carries, but following halftime and a 6-yard powering on the first play of the second half, Spurrier decided that there was only one way to get the game back under control. As impatient as he could be, Spurrier checked himself and told Thompson to hand off. Two plays later, the decision was proven to be correct. Davis took the handoff, saw the middle was closed and veered around left tackle. That hole yawned open and Davis hit the afterburners, going to the sideline and out-running UCF’s flailing defense. The 53-yard burst put USC on the board and really started a 225-yard rushing day, including 167 for Davis.
Why it ranks: The Gamecocks finally got their offense on track, and hammered UCF into submission into the second half until the Knights began coming back.
15. PAUL’S BOUTIQUE
Synopsis: Again at Missouri, again on that first drive of the fourth quarter. Shaw had already picked up two first downs in trying situations, but now faced another. On third-and-19 at the Missouri 25, after having been sacked by Michael Sam, Shaw was going to have to pass. Sure enough, the blitz came in, but Shaw was ready for it. In a play that would be repeated several times, Mizzou sold out on the pass-rush and didn’t defend the screen. Shaw backpedaled and tossed softly to Davis, who turned upfield and saw nothing but grass. Davis sprinted through the hole, but as he saw the defense converge, he smartly stayed behind blocker Corey Robinson. Davis put his hand in Robinson’s back and shoved him toward one would-be tackler; Robinson took the guy out as he fell and Davis kept running. A hard shot shook up Davis, but he got exactly 19 yards. The comeback was on
Why it ranks: Not only did it keep the drive alive to end in a touchdown, but it revealed a sizable hole in Mizzou’s defense. The Tigers never did defend that screen.
14. SKAI’S THE LIMIT
Synopsis: If the fumble, ensuing fumble on the punt and touchdown to go up 14 points wasn’t the clincher, this was. The Gamecocks led Clemson 31-17, but there was still 3:44 to go. Realistic or likely to tie the game? No, but possible, especially knowing that the game was one Boyd-to-Watkins completion from being a seven-point affair. Boyd started at his 25. He took the snap and despite playing pretty well all night, made a very poor throw. He didn’t step in, he didn’t throw with enough mustard to get to a receiver who was supposed to be cutting toward the middle – and he didn’t see Moore camping right there in front of the receiver. The throw was completed directly to Moore. That ended all thoughts of a potential comeback and forever immortalized Boyd as playing his worst in the rivalry game, although he is the greatest quarterback in Clemson history.
Why it ranks: It removed any fleeting hope of a rally. That was the play that sent Tiger fans to the exits.
13. COLD BUSTA’D
Synopsis: The Gamecocks had fooled around long enough. There was no way they should be allowing Florida to make a game of it, much less lead, but the Gators were still ahead 14-13 in the fourth quarter. Shaw moved the Gamecocks to the Florida 36, where they faced third-and-9. With receivers struggling to get open all day, perhaps he should have run, but he saw Busta Anderson with a step on linebacker Neiron Ball. Shaw floated the pass down the middle of the field, a bit underthrown, as Anderson turned and leaped. With Ball on his front side, Anderson somehow managed to pin the ball on Ball’s helmet; when he began to fall on the tackle, Anderson stretched the ball away, up and into his chest before he hit the turf. Ball was flagged for pass interference. It was declined, since Anderson caught it anyway. Four plays later, USC had its first lead of the game.
Why it ranks: USC could finally relax, since that completion made it pretty much standard that the Gamecocks were going to take the lead, even without a touchdown.
12. HE SPINNIN’
Synopsis: Shamier Jeffery’s stab of an onside kick (see Top 10) set it up, but USC still hadn’t salted the game. The ensuing drive, as Kentucky burned its timeouts, was dinking and dunking downfield. Facing second-and-4 from the UK 43, the Gamecocks really needed to move the chains. Davis got the ball and when it looked like he was going to be hit for a short gain, spun like he was stationed on the Twister wheel to leave defenders grasping air. He ran for 7 to get the first down, and after UK used its final TO, the Gamecocks could kneel.
Why it ranks: Another comfortable win became way too close, but that’s what allowed USC to release its collective breath.
Synopsis: After three huge first-down pickups at Missouri, Shaw knew he needed a touchdown. While the Gamecocks could have kicked a field goal, a touchdown would really show that they were in this thing. After the third-and-19 completion to Davis, Shaw set up at the 6, took the snap and rolled right. He sort-of sidearmed the throw toward the end zone, trying to put it only where Ellington could get it. At first ruled an incomplete, the back judge saw what not many saw – Ellington caught it, right in the breadbasket, and dragged his feet in-bounds before falling out. It was turned into a touchdown on the field, Ellington whooped and scored an uppercut against the air as boos cascaded from the Tiger faithful.
Why it ranks: It finished that all-important first drive and let Missouri know that the first three quarters, ultimately, meant nothing.
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