South Carolina extends streak against Clemson, falls short of SEC title game

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Steve Spurrier walked out of a rivalry game holding up five fingers Saturday night. It might as well have been one. The South Carolina Gamecocks lengthened their winning streak over Clemson up to a full hand, and in the aftermath a Gatorade-soaked Head Ball Coach was in high enough spirits to leave a nationally-televised message for his in-state rivals.

With a few of his assistants gathered around, seemingly egging him on and enjoying the show, this is Spurrier at his best: strutting off a field following a 31-17 win against a top-10 team, another high-quality regular season under his belt, verbal jousts beginning to formulate in his mind.

“I started thinking, amazingly, when we play these guys from Clemson, the script follows the same thing.”

That script included his quarterback, Connor Shaw, one he called the best quarterback in program history, outplaying his nationally-recognized counterpart. It included his defense, a source of scrutiny at times in 2013, coming up with game-changing play after game-changing play. It included momentum and thrown playsheets and forced turnovers and third-down conversions and more forced turnovers. In the 60 minutes of gameplay between No. 10 South Carolina and No. 6 Clemson, little went wrong for Spurrier’s bunch.

“We have an excellent coaching staff here, and it’s pretty neat to go 10-2 with this team that was one time called the youngest team in America,” Spurrier said. “They’ve really achieved, and I’m really proud of this team. I was thinking back of all the teams I’ve had, these guys have achieved the most for such a young bunch of guys that haven’t played all that much and don’t have that much experience. So give them credit.”

Unfortunately for the Gamecocks’ 10-2 season and everything else that went according to plan against Clemson, some things are outside of a team’s control.

* * *

South Carolina walked into Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday night understanding the bilateral equation facing the program: one part staring down its bitter in-state rival in Columbia, S.C., looking to extend that coveted streak, one part waiting and wishing for good news out of Columbia, Mo., 13 hours to the northwest. 

The former dealt, first and foremost, with bragging rights. 

The latter held conference implications.

Earlier in the week, perhaps as a none-too-subtle dig at what has without question become the state’s little brother program, Spurrier claimed the SEC implications were of higher concern. But those were placed solely in the hands of the conference’s two newest members, Texas A&M and Missouri, the season-long SEC East leader, with the Gamecocks needing a Mizzou loss — the Gamecocks held the head-to-head edge thanks to an overtime win back in October — to advance to the title game in Atlanta. And as the two games between two ranked teams in two separate Columbias unfolded, there was give and there was take.

When South Carolina successfully drew Clemson offsides in a big spot — albeit a terrible call from the official, as center Cody Waldrop clearly mimicked a snap by jerking his head — Missouri scored a game-tying touchdown, 14-14, just a few short seconds later. When Mike Davis, the Gamecocks’ standout sophomore running back, scored his lone touchdown of the night to put his team ahead for good, Missouri’s L’Damian Washington simultaneously came up with an athletic touchdown grab on a red-zone fade route. Back and forth, back and forth. 

Unbeknownst to most within the sparkling confines at the corner of Bluff and George Rogers, their team’s SEC fate was balancing on a midwestern high wire, destined to tumble.

By the time the stadium’s big board showed the Mizzou-Texas A&M showdown, the game was knotted up at 21-21. Fans were audibly cheering on Johnny Manziel and the Aggies, gathering in the stands in the east endzone to take in the action. But as Spurrier dropped verbal barbs on Clemson — “We don’t talk about (Clemson) all that much … They used to talk about it all the time here.” — Tigers running back Henry Josey broke away for 57 yards, putting the Tigers in the title game and leaving the Gamecocks’ press room celebration bittersweet in tone.

Facing two sets of Tigers, one tangible and one unseen, South Carolina ended its regular season on a positive note, hitting the 10-win mark for the third straight season, but once more came up a few breaks shy of the Georgia Dome. 

“How ’bout that Auburn win? They’re a team of destiny,” Spurrier said following Josey’s touchdown that ended his team’s conference title hopes. “I thought that we may be and Missouri lost, but it looks like that Auburn could be the team of destiny.”

* * *

Over the course of South Carolina’s five-game win streak against Clemson, the longest such stretch in program history, the Gamecocks have won the turnover battle every time. That’s usually a winning formula. Entering the 2013 edition, Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team had coughed the ball up nine times in four games, even provoking Spurrier to previously state, in typical Spurrier-holding-up-five-fingers fashion, that the Tigers are a good team that just doesn’t seem to play well against the Gamecocks. 

A similar trend held true on Saturday night.

Clemson turned the ball over six times in the game, four coming in the fourth quarter as the sixth-ranked Tigers publicly deteriorated. The four turnovers came on their final four possessions. Tajh Boyd and his high-powered offense out-gained the Gamecocks, 352-315, but he personally turned the ball over three times (two interceptions, one fumble) and accounted for just one score. His final line — 19-of-27, 225 yards, two INTs — is a look into how this series has gone for him over his illustrious career: just shy of expectations.

In a 10-win season of their own, Boyd and Clemson still could not find a way — instead, they found mounting ridicule as the wheels fell off, one mistake following another.

Boyd was also sacked five times in the game, looking uncomfortable in the moment for one of the first times during his senior campaign. Was it his old friend Jadeveon Clowney, the same one who so famously offered up his oft-discussed opinion that “Tajh Boyd is scared” over the summer, simply making life miserable? It sure looked like it, as Boyd, at times, did not trust his protection even when it held up:

“We know if we hit him a few times he starts getting the jitters back there and starts throwing crazy balls,” said Clowney, who logged two tackles for loss in the game.

Clowney’s defensive line mate Kelcy Quarles echoed that sentiment: “If you rattle him up … he will throw some ugly balls. And that’s what he did.”

Though not quite the “scared” quote of yesterday, the message was clear: South Carolina was not about to start playing nice with the All-ACC passer this time around. Boyd’s mistakes piled on top of Sammy Watkins’ opening-drive interception and two fumbles by junior punt returner Adam Humphries, including one with just five minutes remaining and South Carolina leading 24-17. For Clowney, standing watch on the South Carolina sideline, Humphries’ final fumble was the final straw. Five straight was imminent. 

Clemson was out of punches. If it wasn’t getting hit in the mouth, it was swinging at air. 

When the bell finally sounded, Steve Spurrier’s players followed suit and walked around the green canvas holding up five fingers. At least they were no longer balled in a fist. The fight ended in familiar fashion, and though the Gamecocks are no longer contenders on a larger scale, there’s no question who holds the belt in the Palmetto State.
“Well, if you look at the stat sheet (the past few games in this rivalry) are all very similar: 31-17, 34-13, we did have a 29-7 in there and 27-17 last year. They’re all similar scores and fortunately we got ahead enough we could relax a little bit the last minute of the game,” Spurrier said. “We know we’re sort of blessed. We’re not that great of a team … They’re a good team but continue to not play very well when they play us for some reason.”

Knockout punches sting.