Will Muschamp said about everything needed to sum up his South Carolina football team’s final game of the regular season with the phrase, “We got whipped.”
A breakdown of the game video from the loss to Clemson showed an essential truth: Really good players swing a lot of small things on a lot of plays, and those make a big difference.
That’s what you see when a freakish pass catcher such as the Tigers’ Mike Williams simply goes over pretty solid coverage from South Carolina’s 6-foot-2 athletic corner Jamarcus King. When a veteran quarterback with a Heisman-level ceiling is playing well with a range of weapons and putting the ball in exactly the right spot, things can go south in a hurry.
“They were very accurate,” Muschamp said. “They made plays on the ball, protected well. We had some opportunities to be in position. You’ve got to make some plays.”
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What went wrong with the passing game?
Call it a combination of all factors.
Jake Bentley was not super accurate, with an overthrow on an early interception and sailing a deep past late (knee discomfort from a hit a few plays before might have factored in). He’s a freshman, and that will happen on the road in that environment, but he needed to be extra accurate because Clemson’s secondary talent is top-notch.
Cordrea Tankersley will be one of the top corners in next year’s draft, and he rarely gave up much space when targeted. Ryan Carter is plenty good on the other side, and three members of the secondary are fourth-year players.
The only way USC would have been able to throw consistently, outside a Herculean effort from Bentley, would have been giving him a ton of time. He got some level of pressure on 70 percent of his dropbacks and had several passes tipped.
Clemson sent a few overload pressures, and tight end Hayden Hurst said he often felt rushers outnumbered blockers. But that can happen when one team has Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence (prospects ranked Nos. 24, 71 and 2 in their respective recruiting classes and each worthy of a double team) against a line that hasn’t been super consistent.
Lawrence (90) beats double team
What went wrong with the running game?
It’s tempting to look at that defensive line again, as Watkins and Lawrence could both stand up double teams, with Lawrence (6-foot-5, 340 pounds) often beating them.
USC didn’t run much early, trying to come out aggressively throwing, and in the gap between then and when the game really got out of hand, USC couldn’t get much push. In the first half, no Gamecock made it more than 2 yards downfield before contact. Rico Dowdle’s usual ability to power through contact was also limited by the depth of strong, fast guys on the Clemson side of the field.
Dowdle can’t fight through contact
Throw in the fact that even when the blocks did line up on a sweep play in the first half, a deep safety, Von Smith, raced up to hit the Gamecocks runner just a yard past the line of scrimmage.
Safety shoots up to make play near LOS
To keep it close, South Carolina was going to have to hit every block and have some plays flow their way. Instead, Clemson seemed to at least be even on those little things.
What went wrong with the defense?
The way talent often manifests itself is in the little things. Standing up a ball-carrier vs. letting him fall forward often means the a 2- to 3-yard difference. Having an on-target quarterback vs. good coverage often isn’t good enough.
South Carolina’s defense is built to make opponents work downfield and stay consistent. Clemson’s offense has settled into working downfield rather than producing huge plays. That part played to type, with Clemson generating only four plays longer than 20 yards and none of 35 or more.
But that mean more chances for the edge in little things to pile up. Even Clemson’s unsuccessful runs often gained 4-5 yards just because of better push. A play where D.J. Smith had Wayne Gallman 1-on-1 in the backfield ended with the runner going backward and getting an edge to convert a short second down.
Safety can’t corral Tigers back
Clemson’s offense is built to stress a defense all over and create 1-on-1 situations. Will Muschamp noted his team had to put an extra body in the box, creating the spots where Williams could thrive in single coverage.
With the level of talent the Tigers have, it’s hard to stop, and it’s a deficit that can only be fixed on the recruiting trail and with development.
▪ South Carolina almost had a fourth-and-1 stop before a first-quarter Clemson score, but Gallman got enough push through a linebacker in the hole.
Gallman powers 1-on-1
▪ Several times Gamecocks safeties shot up to make some last-line-of-defense type plays closer to the line of scrimmage.
▪ One notable little thing was the fake punt that went awry. Hayden Hurst said he had two targets and both (tight end K.C. Crosby and punter Sean Kelly) were double covered. He tried running, but instead of going toward space, where he’d have to try to run through a linebacker, he followed a blocker and was taken down.
▪ South Carolina tried a shovel pass to Hayden Hurst that tried to imitate counter blocking. Pitt had used it to great effect in upsetting the Tigers, but Dexter Lawrence got in the passing lane.
▪ Bentley hurt his knee getting bent up on a scramble.
▪ On a 30-yard gain that set up the last touchdown of the first half, Buck defensive end D.J. Wonnum ended up covering Tigers tight end Jordan Leggett as he went up the sideline. Wonnum’s coverage wasn’t all that bad, but a good throw, catch and run produced the gain.