David Cloninger

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Clemson

tdominick@thestate.com

David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s loss to Clemson.

CLEMSON 37, SOUTH CAROLINA 32

THE GOOD

BELIEF

There was no way South Carolina should have been that close. The Gamecocks had no talent, Clemson was way too good and the best option seemed to be to forfeit. Yet USC fought, clawed and would not go away until that last zero was notched on the clock. It was a performance worthy of the nickname.

And it just goes to show you – sometimes hope and a will is all you need.

SKAI-ROW

It was definitely the last game for Pharoh Cooper, and perhaps the last for Skai Moore. Either way, it’s been a privilege to watch them play. Each gave everything they had in every game for three seasons, and if I had to count the players I’ve seen do that in way too many years on this beat, it’d be a short list.

Each didn’t have to play, which made it so beautiful. Each could have taken the day off – which others have done a lot the last couple of years – and waited for April and an NFL check. Instead each chose to pay back the school that had given them an opportunity, and they didn’t give up until it wasn’t possible to play any more.

I look forward to watching them on Sundays.

ZO

There’s Lorenzo Nunez. He did exactly what I thought he could this game, making plays and putting Clemson back on its heels. People say he’s a quarterback, a scat-back, a receiver, a runner – I say he’s a playmaker. When he gets others around him, and a line in front of him, he’ll really start showing off.

HAT SQUAD

First rule of defense – you may be under-talented, you may be out-sized and out-muscled and overwhelmed. But you can still leave a bruise on that other guy.

The Gamecocks did that to those other guys. It was like 11 Shannon “Bodybags” Wadleys out there on almost every play, with a touch of D.J. “JungleBoi Swagg” Swearinger thrown in. USC was going to crush some pads no matter what.

THE BOOK OF CONNOR

Nunez and Perry Orth each dusted it off in the first quarter, and Nunez used it throughout – when in doubt, run zone-read, or “The Shaw.” Each scampered through Clemson’s confused defensive front for some yards, and if they could have just ended those possessions in points, maybe it would have resulted in the win.

BYOG

Some coaches don’t have to trademark canned phrases – they just live it. Shawn Elliott faced fourth-and-1 early, lined up in shotgun, called timeout, then decided to sneak Orth under center. He got it.

TO’S

The Gamecocks again won the turnover battle in the Clemson game. But it didn’t result in winning, which was the trend in The Streak from 2009-13. The Tigers had an advanced case of fumble-itis, which I understand is caused from excessive exposure to a color that even Detroit won’t paint on its automobiles.

IT SPRINGS ETERNAL

A lasting image from this, my 20th consecutive rivalry game attended, is of Garrison Gist walking on the Block C at midfield, unable to believe his career was over. I admit, Gist and I share a bond because we both went to the finest high school in South Carolina, but to see a kid that didn’t play that much love his uniform that much in a 3-9 season said a lot.

A second -- I ran into one of the equipment guys walking off the field and despite the season, despite the game, he looked me in the eye and said, “They ain’t beating us next year.”

It made me think that if hope had just had a companion of talent on Saturday … “Clemsoning” would have been fully back in vogue.

THE ERA OF NOT QUITE ENOUGH

It was doomed from the start and Elliott refused to admit it. The man is a fighter, and he wasn’t going to accept that he was handed a 2-4 band of misfits. He was going to make it a winner, come hell or Clemson.

He almost -- no, achingly close almost – pulled it off.

By seven at A&M. By three at Tennessee. Listless (but still close) loss to Florida and then that godawful drop to The Citadel. By five to the one team that if he’d have pulled it off, he would have been reclassified as a legend.

Yet, he will be a legend. Because he enthusiastically signed on to steer a leaking ship to its watery grave and thought he had enough tar in the hold to patch the problem. Because he believed in his heart he could turn it around – and those kids believed him, ignoring the lack of talent and schedule facing them. This team DID turn around in the last six games, even though the record didn’t reflect it, and that’s all because of Shawn Elliott.

To borrow and paraphrase from John Feinstein (and Shakespeare), “if you cried when Hamlet died in Horatio’s arms, why wouldn’t you cry when (Elliott) fell on his sword?” Elliott wanted this job, he bled for this job, he served his post with something so rare in today’s world – honor. Elliott desired so badly to do this, to be the one who led South Carolina out of the abyss, that he fell into the same pit of his players – young enough to dream, but not old enough to know that most dreams don’t come true (H.G. Bissinger).

This team wasn’t talented. Nobody could have won with it. Yet Elliott tried, and he deserves credit for it. This team did play better when he took over, and it did believe when hope was lost. And that’s all because of him.

Shawn Elliott may be an Appalachian State graduate, but he’ll always be a Fightin’ Gamecock.

THE BAD

BIG GAME GARNET

Elliott has used a lot of gimmicks, because why not? The offense had to go high-school trick formations because it sure wasn’t working the other way. So when it came to uniforms, again – why not?

The latest was all-garnet, including garnet helmets for the first time since 1998. While USC certainly played better, I was reminded of Gaylord Perry’s line when he played for the 1970s Cleveland Indians and wore an all-red uniform – “I feel like a massive blood clot.”

Some jumped on USC for bringing out helmets last used in a 1-10 campaign. I thought, “Well, what else would you want to do?” Let’s look at it.

Garnet helmets = 1-10. White helmets = Most of this year. Black helmets = The fight in 2004. Tail feathers = Loss. Not like there were a lot of other options that didn’t have a bad connotation attached.

MY WAY LEADS TO THE HIGHWAY

Look, Clemson probably would have won anyway. I’m just stunned that when the Gamecocks cut the deficit to 28-25, putting the pressure on the Tigers to produce, USC’s defensive play-calls gave Clemson all the room it needed to survive.

First down, showed pressure. Second down, showed pressure. The Tigers were being put into long passing downs from USC’s very improved tackling and run-stopping. So on third down, it seemed logical to think USC would keep showing pressure.

Nope.

Deshaun Watson had all day to throw on third-and-9, 12-yard strike. Third-and-6, 17-yard strike. Third-and-goal from the 3, Watson didn’t pass but USC’s safeties were playing at the back of the end zone, and he ran it in.

We didn’t want to give up the big play, and he can make plays with his legs, Jon Hoke said. We didn’t want to blitz and then have him run around it.

So instead the Gamecocks played back, knowing damn well they have had problems covering receivers all year, and let Watson have all the time he needed to find an open one. I’m no expert, but I believe if you give a quarterback time to throw, he will eventually find a man to throw to.

Hoke’s philosophy this year was to “rush and cover.” With a season-saving (or destroying, depending on what side you’re on) game in the balance, he told his defense to not rush, and it didn’t cover.

Yeah.

REVERSE

Artavis Scott fumbled that ball. He fumbled that ball. ACC officials declared he didn’t after they looked at it. Watson took in a 30-yard touchdown on the next play, making it 21-3.

I thought I was watching a Duke basketball game.

BLESS HIS HEART

Orth had a great second half and a bad first half. Elliott threatened to bench him, as he should have – Orth squelched a red-zone possession by fading a pass to the corner that was intercepted, when it appeared he had decided to throw it there no matter what. He also blew a third-down pass to a wide-open Deebo Samuel because he threw too high.

Late in the game, there was a tiny chance of USC still pulling it off if it could hit one big play to score quickly, recover an onside kick and then get into position for an Elliott Fry field goal. Slim chance, but possible. Orth began passing side to side and refused to throw downfield, even going to a middle-of-the-field pass with no timeouts.

I’ve tried to be very careful of criticizing Orth this year, because no matter his mistakes, he never should have been starting for an SEC team. Elliott agreed with me, saying Orth has gotten as much out of his talent as humanly possible. He’s done well considering the circumstances.

Just a wee bit better Saturday, and he has a free lunch in Columbia the rest of his life.

SUPER FRY

He was sent out to attempt a 55-yard field goal. It was short.

Apparently Elliott’s eyes saw Sebastian Janikowski wearing 29 instead of the usual 164-pound kicker.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Nobody is discounting the fight and resolve the Gamecocks had on Saturday. They wanted it, they knew they could get it, they weren’t going to leave without scrapping until their last breath. It was a proud moment.

I just have to ask, if they had this all along – why didn’t they display it earlier, when the season was still there to be saved?

THE UGLY

DISASTER

It’s definitely been a season to remember. From a lousy defense to a punchless offense to outstanding special teams to a game being moved due to natural disaster to the best coach in program history quitting, it’s been a season to remember.

It still amazes me how far and fast USC fell. Twenty-five games ago, the Gamecocks were No. 4 in the country and had won 40 games over four years. Those of us who grew up thinking they’d be lucky to ever win six games in a season and get to a bowl game thought that the good times were there to stay.

As we all saw, success can be fleeting. And while a new coach will definitely re-energize the fan base, it may be a while before the Gamecocks can reasonably expect to contend for SEC titles.

Talent is bare. It will take the new coach time to rebuild recruiting. I don’t think there will be any kind of situations here like what happened to Jim McElwain at Florida. It’s USC. It’s a hard, hard job.

Not saying the Gamecocks will never get back to 11-2, or never again get to Atlanta. Not saying they won’t at least get back to the point where they’re going to a bowl game every year. I’m saying that it may be a while to get back.

If ever.

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