Clemson's next challenge: rivarly game
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says his team is in the “championship phase” of its season, and, after clinching the ACC Atlantic Division title last week, there's another one at stake this week — the state championship.
The Tigers (10-1, 7-1 ACC) will play host to arch-rival South Carolina (6-5, 3-5 SEC) on Saturday in the regular-season finale with the Palmetto Bowl trophy going to the winner. Kickoff at Memorial Stadium in Clemson is 7:30 p.m. ET with ESPN doing the telecast.
Swinney refers to the Tigers' annual game against in-state rival South Carolina as “a season of its own.”
“It really doesn't matter what the records are and all that type of stuff,” Swinney said. “When you get into these rivalry-type games, it's a lot of emotion and anything that can happen, so we know that we have to play very well.”
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp is getting his first exposure to this rivalry, but knows intrastate “feuds” after recent coaching stints at Auburn (Alabama) and Florida (Florida State).
“I don't know if the other stops will help you at all, other than being here your first day and walking by people talking about beating Clemson,” he said. “You hear that very quickly, and you understand the importance of the game.
“We've talked about winning our state all the time — whether it's recruiting or on the field, whatever we need to do. The competition between the two schools is very healthy.”
Swinney liked the way his team responded last week following its only loss of the season. Following the setback at home to Pittsburgh, the Tigers rebounded in a big way with a 35-13 victory at Wake Forest. They flashed an effective rushing game behind Wayne Gallman, who posted a season-high 161 yards, and Clemson finished with more yards rushing (254) than passing (202) for the first time this season.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson continues to be the catalyst. He has passed for just over 298 yards a game and is the second-leading rusher on the team with 422 yards to Gallman's 831. His favorite targets, wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, have combined for 128 receptions for 1,481 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Watson, who has announced his intention to bypass his senior season to enter the NFL draft, is looking to go 3-0 against South Carolina in his collegiate career. He has gone 34-of-46 passing for 561 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 127 yards in the two previous games.
“I don't know if you're going to stop a guy like him,” Muschamp said. “You have to limit him, and that's exactly the word we've used.
“Where he gives you the most issues is the off-rhythm plays and his creativity. It's very hard to finish on him in the pocket because he's a bigger target who is a hard guy to get down. He's a strong guy, and he also runs extremely well.
“All of the things you want in your quarterback he possesses. Number one is his leadership ability and his ability to positively affect the guys around him.”
Two freshmen and a sophomore have helped turn South Carolina around. Muschamp took the redshirt off a true freshman at midseason, turning the offense over to Jake Bentley, and Bentley has made that decision pay off by completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 198 yards a game.
Running back Rico Dowdle, who also was in high school this time a year ago, jump-started the running game. He has rushed for 684 yards in seven games and is coming off a 226-yard effort last week against Western Carolina.
And sophomore wide receiver Deebo Samuel has recovered from an early-season hamstring problem and has caught a team-high 41 passes for 579 yards in eight games.
“It's not going to take anything spectacular,” Muschamp said on preparing for the “Death Valley” atmosphere. “We just need to go play well. We need to go play hard. We need to go play fast. We need to play physical. We need to go play with great effort. We need to play smart.
“We need to keep our composure in a rivalry game — all of the things that you always constantly address with your guys in this type of game.”