Clemson took out five years of frustration on its rivals from South Carolina on Saturday at Death Valley.
The Tigers did so in a number of ways.
There was the dominating performance by a defense that showed why it is, statistically, the nation’s best.
There was the trio of fresh-faced, first-year players who continued the trend of USC’s defense this season, one in which opposing players turn in Heisman-like performances against the Gamecocks.
Among those freshmen was quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was put together with duct tape and bailing wire, according to Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. He played with a torn ACL in a performance that will go down among the most courageous in the history of the rivalry.
“You just need to know what a special human being this guy is, and what a special performance we just witnessed,” Dabo Swinney said of Watson, who completed 14 of 19 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns and bulled his way into the end zone for two other scores.
For USC, the loss represented a disappointing end to a disappointing regular season, from a No. 9 national ranking in the preseason with visions of getting into the first College Football Playoff to a 6-6 finish and bowl game date likely in Birmingham, Shreveport or Charlotte.
But this game was all about Clemson, a team that finally shook off what was beginning to look like a hex against its rival, and positioned itself – with a bowl win – to notch a fourth consecutive 10-win season.
Saturday’s 35-17 thumping – and it was a thumping – had its origin during the summer, when the Clemson assistant coaches went to Swinney and said they wanted countdown clocks to the rivalry game mounted in every meeting room and locker room.
“Just a reminder that it’s a big deal,” Morris said of the reason for the clocks. “It’s a big deal, and don’t ever forget it.”
Just before kickoff, Clemson players added a new wrinkle to their traditional touching of Howard’s Rock and running down the hill at Memorial Stadium. Instead of sprinting to the sideline, the team gathered at the bottom of the hill for the first time in anyone’s memory.
“That’s their last game in Death Valley,” freshman Artavis Scott said of the senior class, “and we wanted to send them out in the right way.”
While all the pomp might have pumped Clemson up to end the losing streak against USC, it was the circumstance of Watson’s injured knee that mattered most. Clemson announced shortly before kickoff that Watson was ready to go after being on the field for only 18 plays against Georgia Tech over the Tigers’ past five games.
Twice, Watson headed to the sideline when his knee brace apparently was too tight and was causing circulation problems in his leg.
“I knew I was feeling some pain, I wasn’t 100 percent,” Watson said, “but, at the time, it felt funny and I had to come out. I wasn’t going to stay in and be selfish and make the team worse. So, I just came out and tried to loosen it up a little bit.”
Essentially on one leg, Watson appeared to energize his teammates just by his presence on the field. He certainly brought out the best in redshirt freshman running back Wayne Gallman, who rushed for 191 yards and a touchdown, and freshman receiver Scott, who caught seven passes for 185 yards.
That was enough offense for Clemson’s defense, which limited USC’s high-powered offense to 339 yards, chased quarterback Dylan Thompson into four sacks and recorded 13 tackles for loss. That USC managed 63 yards rushing on 33 attempts told how much trouble the Gamecocks had generating offense.
It all added up to Clemson taking out five years of frustration on USC.