If moral victories don’t count, how about morale victories?
South Carolina lost to No. 2 Clemson on Saturday night, 56-35 in front of 81,436 fans in Memorial Stadium. The Gamecocks have now lost five straight to their archrival, who they will soon watch play in another CFB Playoffs and maybe win another national title.
South Carolina (6-5) is headed for a makeup game against Akron and a forgettable bowl game. After that, though, they can go into the offseason with a sense of optimism in part because of what happened Saturday night in Death Valley.
The Gamecocks were 26-point underdogs headed into the game. They were embarrassed 56-7 by the Tigers in head coach Will Muschamp’s first year and fared only marginally better last year, losing 34-10 in a game that was never competitive.
“From year one to year three, it’s huge progress,” Muschamp said. “It’s tremendous progress. It’s not even comparable, but at the end of the day we came here to win. We came here to win the football game. We didn’t. I’m proud of our effort, but that’s not what we’re here for.”
Saturday night’s game was competitive for nearly 40 minutes. Say what you will, that qualifies as progress at the moment in this rivalry. What could have been a cover-the-kid’s-eyes game was downright fun for South Carolina for a while.
Junior quarterback Jake Bentley had a career-high 510 passing yards against the nation’s No. 2 ranked defense, completing 30-of-48 with five touchdowns and one interception. He broke the USC single-game passing record against the Tigers with 23 minutes left to play and had the second-most passing yards ever against Clemson.
“There are a lot of good things offensively that we did. From two years ago, we’re more mature, knew what the environment was like. At the end of the day, though, we didn’t win,” Bentley said. “I hate to keep coming back to that, being negative, but that’s what we wanted to do, and we didn’t get it done.”
The Gamecocks finished with 600 yards, more than any Tigers opponent this season. Six Gamecocks had catches of 14 or more yards. Deebo Samuel had a 75-yard touchdown and 210 yards and three touchdowns overall. Kiel Pollard had a 67-yard touchdown. South Carolina first-year offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon threw everything and then some at the Tigers, using more than a half dozen different offensive formations on the first drive alone, including one where offensive tackles Dennis Daley and Dylan Wonnum were split wide right in a four-receiver bunch. (Daley and Wonnum were split wide again when Samuel scored his 75-yard touchdown.)
“They had some funky stuff, man,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
Twice, Muschamp went for it on fourth-and-goal inside the Tigers 5-yard line. The game would have been even closer if either of those attempts had been successful. Or if Clemson had gone 90-plus yards for a touchdown after both of those failed attempts.
“Look at the scoreboard. Scoreboard shows the progress. Two years ago, we got our (butt) beat. This year, we had a fighting chance,” South Carolina senior offensive lineman Zack Bailey said. “We just have to make a couple plays, and we’re back in this thing.”
South Carolina’s offense wasn’t perfect, though, and it would have had to be perfect considering the shape of the Gamecocks defense.
In addition to a starting defensive end and five safeties already out due to long-term injuries (Bryson Allen-Williams, J.T. Ibe, Nick Harvey, Jamyest Williams, Javon Charleston, Jaylin Dickerson), the Gamecocks started Saturday night’s game without defensive ends D.J. Wonnum and Aaron Sterling and starting defensive back Jaycee Horn due to injury. Keir Thomas, who started at defensive end, and Daniel Fennell, who started at linebacker, didn’t finish the game due to injuries.
That was never going to work against the Tigers, who entered the game fifth in the nation in scoring.
Clemson (12-0) finished with 744 yards, more than any South Carolina opponent in history, and put the game essentially out of reach with a 13-yard Tavian Feaster touchdown carry with 6:46 left in the third quarter to put the Tigers ahead 42-21, although South Carolina pulled to within two scores on 20-yard touchdown catch by Shi Smith with 3:37 remaining in the game.
Clemson finished with more points than any South Carolina opponent this year. Only in a few circumstances could any positives be taken out of a game like that.
Saturday night was one of those circumstances.
“Our guys fought their guts out,” Muschamp said. “We came here to win the game, and we didn’t.”