CLEMSON, S.C. — As South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward passed his best player in the cramped press area underneath Clemson’s Memorial Stadium Saturday, he admitted that he had lied.
Before the game, Ward told standout defensive end Jadeveon Clowney that there were big shoes to fill in Saturday night’s in-state rivalry game against Clemson, bigger surely than any collegiate defender could fit into against one of the nation’s most lethal offenses. He told him that Melvin Ingram, a star on last season’s South Carolina team, had once sacked Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd six times. That was Clowney’s designated task.
As they exchanged postgame grins, Ward warned him the secret was out.
“They are all talking about how I lied to you about the sacks. They know,” Ward called to Clowney.
Of course, Ingram did not even notch six career sacks against Boyd. And he certainly did not reach the 4.5 quarterback takedowns like Clowney finished with in the Gamecocks’ 27-17 road win, their fourth-consecutive victory over the Tigers. Not that it mattered to Clowney. He probably thought he could beat Ingram’s imaginary mark anyways.
“I already knew you were lying,” rebutted the 6-foot-6 true sophomore as he passed his coach in the doorway. “I already knew that, anyways.”
Much has been made about this season’s wide-open Heisman race — many safely assuming it will come down to a freshman (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel) and a linebacker (Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o) — but on nights like Saturday in South Carolina, there is little doubt who the best player in the country truly is. And if you haven’t seen him at his best, you’re missing out. Dominant just doesn’t quite cut it.
Clowney shattered the Gamecocks’ single-season sacks mark against Clemson, tallying 4.5 to bring his season total to 13. For his efforts, he helped to stall Boyd and the fourth-ranked scoring offense just enough to allow his backup quarterback (Dylan Thompson) to build a lead and his coach (Steve Spurrier) to set the school’s all-time wins mark. The Tigers averaged more than 44 points per game coming into the night. They walked away with two first-quarter touchdowns and then a field goal the rest of the way, committing two turnovers and looking utterly helpless as the time ticked away.
“We stood (Clowney) up and moved him around a little bit, hopefully to get a one-on-one. But yeah, you can’t block Jadeveon one-on-one,” Spurrier said. “So we got him one more year and then we will shake his hand and thank him for everything he’s done for South Carolina.”
“It’s crazy,” Thompson added about watching Clowney from the sidelines. “I guess the most comparable guy I watch play to him is the guy from the (San Francisco) 49ers, Aldon Smith. It’s almost like guys just don’t have a chance. That guy, he’s just a freak. There’s nobody you can simulate in practice if you’re the other team, and he shows it on the field. When the lights come on, it’s his time.”
Thompson was the surprising storyline to develop, filling in last minute for injured starter Connor Shaw and throwing for 310 yards on 23-of-41 passing and three touchdowns. If anything, he was efficient. If he needed seven yards for a first down, he got the Gamecocks eight. If the team was backed up on third-and-19, Thompson ran for 20 yards to keep a scoring drive alive. And of course, a few timely pass interference calls never hurt.
That was Thompson’s night, right up to when he read the media the Bible verse (Psalms 100:3) that motivated him throughout Rivalry Week. But as efficient as Spurrier’s offense was without Shaw and superstar running back Marcus Lattimore — the Gamecocks finished with 444 total yards and 11 third-down conversions — it was the defensive effort that gave it time to develop.
Most teams scoring 10 first-half points versus Clemson are blown out by offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ high-octane attack. That quick-strike offense worked early, even hitting early on a 43-yard scoring pass to receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who tied an ACC record with his ninth-consecutive game with a touchdown reception, to take a 14-7 lead before the scrambling ways of Boyd diminished in effectiveness. Boyd finished with just 183 yards on 11-of-24 passing, his worst outing of the season.
“We didn’t wanna be in a shootout,” Thompson said. “I think they’ve proven all year they can score points, but at the same time I think our defense is the best in the country. I honestly do, and we just have full confidence in them.”
Clowney will not enter the Heisman picture — injuries and double teams have limited his effectiveness at times — but make no mistake: If the NFL Draft were held on Nov. 25, 2012, and true sophomores were draft-eligible, Jadeveon Clowney’s name would be the first one out of Roger Goodell’s mouth. There are other names swirling around for celebrated defensive awards and honors, but the description “man amongst boys” is most appropriate when used around Columbia, S.C.
See, Lorenzo Ward was mistaken.
The defensive coordinator put together an spot-on scheme to eliminate the Tigers’ attack, but there was no need to lie — “I don’t lie so much as mislead,” Ward corrected with a laugh. — to his best player. The motivation was already there for the Rock Hill, S.C., native. He was finally 100 percent, and he was ready to prove it. Clemson was enough.
Now, South Carolina’s seniors finish their careers undefeated against their in-state rivals.
As the minutes disappeared off the clock Saturday night, while Thompson was busy hugging his coaches and offensive teammates, Clowney was still relentlessly chasing Boyd, getting his last sack on the game’s final play, hovering for a brief second before being swarmed by South Carolina fans rushing the field.
They hung all over his imposing frame. They just wanted a piece of him. He’s that good; he means that much. From his starting point at midfield, it took him nearly five minutes to wade through the sea of garnet to reach the locker room. After setting the sacks record — a record he knew he was misinformed about just hours earlier — he didn’t seem to mind the adulation. This was Clemson after all, four years in a row.
“I don’t know how it feels to lose to Clemson,” Clowney said before he walked off to the bus, “I’m not going to know how it feels, either.”