South Carolina defensive coaches Jon Hoke, Lorenzo Ward, Deke Adams and Kirk Botkin have very little idea of what their futures hold after Saturday.
They plan on recruiting on Monday, but the Gamecocks will be conducting a head coaching search and more than likely any new hire will want to bring in their own staff.
If the 37-32 loss to No. 1 Clemson is any indication, they had their players’ attention to the very end despite the disappointing 3-9 season that included five straight losses to end the season. Those five games were decided by a combined 26 points.
Of course, there were shortcomings. One of the bigger ones that kept glaring back from the stat sheet each every week reared its ugly head one final time. Clemson converted 9 of 13 third-down conversions and kept the ball on eight straight third down tries from late in the first quarter until the fourth.
“We gave up some third downs,” co-defensive coordinator Hoke said. “(Deshaun Watson) is a tough guy to pressure because he makes plays with his feet. They’re an explosive team that makes big plays, and you want to limit those the best you can. We did pressure, he scrambled around and made plays. He knows where to go with the football.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said his team’s ability to create matchup problems were a key to the third-down success.
“Give them credit, they were trying to not give up the big play,” Swinney said. “We were their best defense for a little while, but we finally settled in and took care of the football. We didn’t think they could handle our empty package. We felt we could spread them out and create some matchup problems, and we were able to do that.”
South Carolina allowed the opposition to convert 78 of 166 third downs on the season, roughly 47 percent. In the current five-game losing streak, it’s been 41 of 77.
Watson was the main contributor to the Tigers’ success.
“It’s always frustrating,” USC leading tackler Skai Moore said. “They were getting to the sticks on third down. We had some gaps open in the zone coverage, and they found the weak points.”
The fight was there again, but an inexcusable penalty stripped the Gamecocks of the biggest momentum they had. Shon Carson scored on a 1-yard run after the third Clemson turnover of the day and Lorenzo Nunez added a 2-point conversion to bring South Carolina within 28-25 with over 12 minutes remaining.
The crowd was alive. But on the ensuing kickoff, South Carolina was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct to allow the Tigers to start the drive from their 40 instead of 25-yard line. Six plays later, Watson scored on a 3-yard run to push it back to a two-score game and something South Carolina couldn’t overcome. A 24-yard gain on third down was one of the big daggers of the drive.
But the penalty stuck with USC interim coach Shawn Elliott.
“That was not the way we wanted our football team to react. It certainly changed the momentum,” Elliott said.
All of the frustration of the season now heads into an offseason of doubt until South Carolina can name a new coach.
Senior T.J. Gurley has seen the highs of 11-win seasons and the disappointment of the first losing season since 2003. One thing he pointed out washis perception that the camaraderie among the players is different now that when he arrived.
That will probably be one of the first areas of focus for any new coach.
“We started to veer off,” he said. “When I was a freshman, we had a lot of camaraderie. We hung out together a lot, and I feel like when those guys left we started to become individuals. We need to get that back and hang together to be a great team.”