South Carolina’s 2016 football season came to an end Saturday. Like nine of the 12 games this season, it wasn’t the end the Gamecocks wanted.
USC (3-9) was within three points in the fourth quarter but eventually fell 37-32 to No. 1 Clemson in Williams-Brice Stadium. The game capped a perfect regular season for the Tigers (12-0) and finished off the Gamecocks’ worst season since the winless campaign of 1999. Other than the 1-21 stretch of 1998 and 1999, the last time South Carolina won fewer than four games in a season was 1991.
“I love those players and those players fight,” said interim head coach Shawn Elliott, who fell to 1-5 since replacing Steve Spurrier. “There are a lot of great men in that (locker) room. A team without a bunch of great men would have quit a long time ago. The win-loss record probably doesn’t say what kind of men are in that room but they are special.”
The Gamecocks finished the season with five-straight losses.
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“It’s been a roller coaster, definitely not satisfied with it, you can’t be at 3-9, but we will continue to work, just like we did this offseason,” said quarterback Perry Orth, who was 13-of-28 for 219 yards and three touchdowns. “We didn’t want to just come in and fold and lay down to these guys. We wanted to win that game. We didn’t want to just lose close.”
South Carolina finished with 402 yards and scored more points than any Tigers opponent this season, but Clemson had 515 yards of offense, becoming the fourth USC opponent to surpass 500 this season.
South Carolina had cut its deficit to 28-25 with a short Shon Carson touchdown run and a two-point conversion with 12:19 left in the game and all the momentum was going the Gamecocks’ way. However, Clemson put together a 10-play, 60-yard drive on its next possession and extended its lead back to two scores on a 3-yard Deshaun Watson scoring run with 8:05 left.
Star of the game: Watson threw some, ran some and scored a lot. The sophomore accounted for the Tigers’ first three touchdowns, scoring on runs of 5 and 30 yard and throwing a 55-yard scoring pass to Deon Cain. He finished with 279 yards passing, 114 yards rushing and four total touchdowns.
Play of the game: The Gamecocks trailed 14-3 at halftime and looked like they got the break they needed when Clemson’s Artavis Scott appeared to fumble after a 27-yard gain. The play was ruled a turnover on the field but was overturned after review. Watson scored on a 30-yard run on the next play, giving Clemson a 21-3 lead with 13:32 left in the third quarter. “His elbow was down,” Elliott said.
Stat of the game: Clemson was 9-for-13 on third down, continuing a troubling trend for the South Carolina defense. The Gamecocks entered the game 107th in the nation in third down conversions allowed at 45.1 percent. The Tigers finished the day with 25 first downs.
Bright spot: Freshman wide receiver Deebo Samuel played well enough in the final two weeks of the season to prove he might be the 2016 offensive bright spot South Carolina desperately will need to 2016. Samuel missed seven games due to a hamstring injury but caught four passes for 27 yards against The Citadel and five for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers on Saturday.
Missing Mitch: Elliott clearly was exasperated with starting quarterback Perry Orth on the sideline at times, and his frustration with freshman quarterback Lorenzo Nunez has been evident for weeks. So what does that say about former starter Connor Mitch’s spot on the depth chart? Mitch, a sophomore, started the first two games of the season, but hasn’t returned since suffering a shoulder separation on Sept. 12. Mitch has been healthy enough to play for several weeks but clearly was never part of this coaching staff’s plans.
Split crowd: There was plenty of orange among a Williams-Brice crowd of 81,409. Much of the upper decks were filled with Clemson fans. South Carolina only sold out one of its five home games this season, that coming in the home opener against Kentucky on Sept. 12.
UP NEXT for USC
Who: South Carolina at Vanderbilt
When: Sept. 1, 2016
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
UP NEXT FOR CLEMSON
Who: Clemson vs. North Carolina
What: ACC title game
When: Dec. 5, 8 p.m.
Where: Charlotte, Bank of America Stadium