South Carolina’s hopes of defeating Clemson for the fifth consecutive season hinge on the defense slowing down a passing attack that features strong-armed quarterback Tajh Boyd and high-octane receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant.
USC coaches Steve Spurrier and Lorenzo Ward know that. Defensive linemen Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton know that. And cornerbacks Jimmy Legree and Vic Hampton know that.
Spurrier marvels at how Boyd consistently finds his top two targets.
“He hits guys on the dead run down the field, and they catch everything that comes their way,” Spurrier said. “It’ll be a challenge for our guys. I would say by far this is the best passing team that we’ve faced this year. We’ve got to be sharp and got to get pressure on the quarterback.”
It starts with Boyd, a senior who has completed 233-of-346 passes for 3,248 yards and 29 touchdowns this season. But the Gamecocks have contained him in their past three wins against the Tigers, when he has completed 32-of-71 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns. In those games, they sacked him 14 times and picked off three of his passes.
“We’ve been getting great pressure throughout the past three years,” Sutton said. “We’re going to still try to do the same thing — keep applying pressure. The more pressure we can get, the more rattled we can get the quarterback. We can affect the quarterback and take over the game.”
Ward, USC’s defensive coordinator, understands that past success isn’t a guarantee this time around.
“Each year is different,” Ward said. “We’re playing with different players than we had last year. We’ve got to go execute. If we execute, we’ll have a chance. If we don’t, then it could be a long night.”
Quarles, who leads the team with seven sacks, noted that it’s most important for the linemen to stay in their lanes and keep Boyd corralled in the pocket, especially since the quarterback has 257 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Boyd can throw from the pocket and throw on the run, but what makes him most effective is the big-play receiving corps headed by Watkins, who has 78 catches for 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns, and the 6-foot-5 Bryant, who has 38 catches for 782 yards — a 20.6-yard average — and five touchdowns.
Legree, who has a team-high three interceptions, believes the secondary is ready for the challenge.
“We know we’ve got to be on our ‘A’ game. We have got to keep our eyes in the right places,” Legree said. “We can’t give up any big plays. Clemson is a team that is known for its explosive plays, they’ve got explosive receivers, and we’ve just got to do what the coaches tell us to do and be in the right place at the right time.”
Hampton, who also has three interceptions while having a standout season, said the Gamecocks will not do anything different in an attempt to contain Watkins.
“We never had to follow their wide receivers around or anything like that,” Hampton said. “We are just going to stick with our game plan, and if they make plays, we will make adjustments.”
Legree said the Gamecocks will show some press coverage but also drop off the receivers as needed.
“We’ll play any way the coaches tell us to play. I’m pretty sure we’ll mix it up,” Legree said.
Ward knows his defense has the ability to pressure Boyd, as it showed last season in sacking him six times and picking off two of his passes. He hopes his unit can keep Boyd from getting into a rhythm Saturday night.
“I don’t know if we can rattle him, but we definitely want to get pressure on him early,” Ward said. “He’ll pick you apart if you don’t.”
Clemson’s receiving group also boasts solid players in Adam Humphries and Mike Williams, but Ward points to containing Watkins and Bryant as the greatest challenge.
“Bryant has really stepped up his game,” he said. “We’ve got to defend two great guys outside.”