Forgetting for a moment the talk surrounding Jadeveon Clowney’s off-field headlines, there was one question mark about South Carolina’s junior defensive end on the field.
Last season, Clowney struggled for most of the game against the two best left tackles he faced — Tennessee’s Tiny Richardson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan. Saturday, Clowney got a rematch against Richardson and erased that concern from his resume.
The 6-foot-6, 274-pound All-American dominated the 6-foot-6, 327-pound Richardson from the start of the Gamecocks’ 23-21 loss to Tennessee.
“Absolutely, (Clowney) has something to prove,” ESPN color analyst Brian Griese said early in the broadcast. “Richardson got the best of him last year in this game. To me Clowney is the guy that has to prove himself in this situation.”
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He did, notching five tackles, including 2.5 for loss and two quarterback hurries and changing the Volunteers’ game plan midstream. A review of the game by The State showed that Tennessee tried to challenge Clowney and block him with pulling tight ends or guards along with Richardson in the first quarter.
Nine minutes in, Clowney had 2.5 tackles-for-loss, almost matching his season total (three) coming into the game. Blocking Clowney with a player other than the one directly in front of him, a tactic other opponents have tried and failed with this season, proved foolhardy due to Clowney’s quickness.
On the second play of the game, Tennessee tried to block Clowney from the side with tight end Brendan Downs who was lined up 3 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap. Downs never made contact, and wide receiver Pig Howard ran directly into Clowney’s facemask on an end around.
On the second series of the game, Clowney recreated The Hit, but this was actually a more impressive play. Against Michigan, a missed blocking assignment gave Clowney a clear path to the running back. Richardson actually attempted to block him on this play, but Clowney beat him inside virtually untouched and stuffed Rajion Neal.
“Boy, that really does look like Michigan,” Griese said.
In the first quarter, Richardson was flagged for one false start and another illegal formation (for lining up too far off the line of scrimmage in hope of getting more time to stop Clowney).
“Might want to try running away from (Clowney) for a little bit to allow Tiny Richardson to settle down a little bit because clearly he’s not doing a good job right now in blocking Clowney,” Griese said.
The Volunteers did just that, running to their right most of the final three quarters and going back to traditional double teams.
“They made me have to work harder in the second half,” Clowney said.
Clowney’s only tackle of the second half came when Tennessee tried to pull guard Zach Fulton from the opposite side of the field to block him. Fulton came nowhere close to Clowney, who stopped Marlin Lane at the line of scrimmage.
Other observations from The Tape include:
• South Carolina’s nine penalties were a season high, as were the 84 yards lost on those penalties. The Gamecocks had three delay of game penalties.
“This has got to be driving Steve Spurrier crazy, but he’s partly to blame,” Griese said. “You have to get the plays in.”
Only four teams in the SEC have been penalized more than USC this season.
• The inside runs Tennessee had success with were a function of USC’s interior defensive linemen not being able to get off one-on-one blocks and poor positioning by the linebackers. The Gamecocks tried multiple combinations of linebackers (Cedrick Cooper was not among them) and struggled with all of them, with the youngsters either missing gaps and coming up too aggressively or getting caught up in the defensive line and being unable to redirect.
“There have been great opportunities to run inside all season because (the linebackers) have been out of position,” Griese said. “Too many bad reads by the linebackers. Once Tennessee breaks the line of scrimmage, they have mismatches on the second level.”
• The linebackers also struggled in pass coverage. Kawian Lewis let tight end Jason Croom get a 5-yard head start on a 23-yard gain in the third quarter.
Tennessee took advantage of South Carolina’s lack of depth at free safety. Thanks to Chaz Elder’s concussion and Kadetrix Marcus’ ejection for targeting, the Gamecocks played most of the day with T.J. Gurley and Chris Moody, and the Volunteers picked on both of them.
In the first quarter, the Volunteers used a max protection (blocking with seven players) and still managed to get Cody Blanc wide open down the right sideline for what would have been a touchdown if not for a poor throw by Justin Worley. Blanc ran right past three Gamecock defenders on that sideline, including Gurley, who was intended to be the last line of defense. Leaving open wide receivers in max protection situations has been a problem for the Gamecocks secondary all season.
• Tennessee defensive tackles Daniel McCullers and Daniel Hood were a problem. Hood whipped normally rock solid A.J. Cann twice on the first two series. Hood and McCullers both got the best of fill-in starter Will Sport at times. On Shaw’s interception, McCullers ran over Sport and forced Shaw out of the pocket. On second-and-8 on South Carolina’s final drive of the game, Stadnik was asked to block McCullers by himself and bounced off before McCullers wrapped up Davis for no gain.
Overall, the Gamecocks’ offensive line got much less push than their counterparts from Tennessee.
• Sophomore running back Mike Davis, the SEC’s leading rusher with 125.6 yards per game, continues to be very good. Davis ran over, around and by Tennessee defenders on a number of occasions.
“When you get Mike Davis in the open field, you see why he’s one of the, if not the, best back in the SEC,” Griese said.
South Carolina led 21-17 as the fourth quarter began and had the ball on Tennessee’s 45-yard line. The Gamecocks called three straight pass plays that led to a quick fourth-and-12 and a punt.
“Steve Spurrier is always, always, always going to want to play pitch and catch. That’s just who he is,” Griese said. “It bothers him Connor Shaw is 7-of-20 at this point, so I just don’t think he can help himself in cases.”
After that series, South Carolina ran the ball seven times and threw it once the remainder of the game.
Sophomore wide receiver Shaq Roland, returning from a three-game suspension, was not targeted again after dropping a first-down pass to start the second series of the game. Bruce Ellington, who dropped a pass in the first half, did not have a catch Saturday for the first time since last year’s game against Florida.
The Gamecocks ran only two plays from the I-formation, and both came on the third series of the game. The first resulted in a 45-yard gain by Davis. The second came immediately after that and resulted in a fumble on a muffed exchange between Stadnik and Shaw. South Carolina spent the rest of the game in the shotgun. Spurrier said after the game the decision to stick to the shotgun was not based on the fumbled snap.
Damiere Byrd is becoming one of the best press-man beaters in the SEC. On the first play of the second quarter, the Gamecocks faced second-and-1, and Tennessee had all 11 defenders within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage. The cornerback opposite Byrd was 1 yard off the line of scrimmage, and Byrd was past the deepest defender on the field within four strides. Shaw found him for a 76-yard touchdown.
• Spurrier’s handling of a late fourth down decision, during which the Gamecocks called two timeouts, was blasted by the TV commentators.
“You couldn’t have used the three timeouts, if you’re Steve Spurrier, any worse,” Griese said.
• Special teams was a disaster. USC’s average starting field position was its 20-yard line, while Tennessee’s was its own 35. In the first quarter, the Gamecocks’ average drive started on their 13, while the Volunteers started on their 43.
In the fourth quarter alone, a penalty on a punt return (on Sidney Rhodes) moved the Gamecocks from the Tennessee 37-yard line to the South Carolina 45, another penalty on a kickoff return (on T.J. Gurley) moved the ball from the 50-yard line to South Carolina’s 11, and Tyler Hull shanked a punt to five Tennessee the ball at the South Carolina 35-yard line.
On the opening kickoff of the game, play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch introduced the Gamecocks place-kicker as “Landon Ard, who’s had some trouble on kickoffs kicking them out of bounds will kick it away.”
Ard kicked it out of bounds.