Three freshmen who know nothing about losing to South Carolina played leading roles in Clemson’s 35-17 victory Saturday against the Gamecocks at Death Valley.
The Tigers’ defense did the rest as Clemson broke a five-game losing streak to their in-state rivals.
It had been since 2008 that Clemson (9-3) last beat South Carolina (6-6), a losing streak that long ago grew tiresome for the Tigers.
“You live with this one every day,” said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. “This one means a lot to a lot of people. I can go to church again. This is a season of its own.”
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Clemson’s three freshmen stars from Saturday – quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott – were all still in middle school or just beginning their high school careers the last time the Tigers beat the Gamecocks.
And each one excelled the first time they played South Carolina.
Watson, playing with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, threw for 269 yards, two touchdowns and ran for two more.
Gallman ran for 191 yards on 27 carries and scored a touchdown. Scott caught seven passes for 185 yards (a Clemson freshman and Memorial Stadium record) and touchdowns of 53 and 70 yards.
“It feels great,” Scott said. “We knew we had to break that streak that was going on, and that’s what we did today.”
The Tigers defense limited South Carolina to 339 yards in total offense, including just 63 on the ground. And, just as importantly, Clemson shut down the Gamecocks with two hope-killing defensive stands in the second half.
The first came late in the third quarter with South Carolina trailing 28-10, but threatening with a first and goal at the Clemson 2. The Gamecocks’ drive had already been extended by a roughing-the-passer penalty against Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony (a hit for which he was thrown out of the game).
The Gamecocks tried four times to get score but couldn’t – the last coming when a pass from quarterback Dylan Thompson to Shaq Roland was swatted away in the end zone by cornerback Garry Peters.
Clemson stood firm again on South Carolina’s next possession, when safety Robert Smith and linebacker Vic Beasley stopped Thompson on a fourth-and-1 by.
“The defense was just awesome,” Swinney said. “They had their jaws set when they went into this thing.”
Watson, who hurt his knee in a recent practice, led an offense that shredded South Carolina with 491 total yards. Swinney said Watson will have offseason surgery on the knee but will be able to play in Clemson’s bowl. He came out of the game briefly in the first half because his tight knee brace was causing his calf muscle to fall asleep.
“(Watson) is a mental and genetic freak,” said Swinney.
Both of Scott’s touchdown catches came on short shovel passes from Watson. The 70-yarder ended with Scott hopping and skipping down the sideline, evading South Carolina tacklers.
“We’ve given up some long ones before,” said Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier. “But we didn’t stop those two shovel passes.”
South Carolina’s Thompson threw for 249 yars and a touchdown, breaking the Gamecocks’ single-season record in the process. He has 3,280 for the year, breaking Todd Ellis’ mark of 3,206 set in 1987.
The Gamecocks, who were one of the favorites to win this season’s SEC Eastern Division (they finished 3-5 in the league), now must win their bowl to even finish above .500.
“I told the guys, ‘6-6 might be what we are,’ ” said Spurrier. “Clemson was better than us, simple as that.”
Both teams now await next Sunday’s bowl announcements. If Florida State beats Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game in Charlotte on Saturday, Clemson is a good bet for the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 against an SEC team. Most predictions have South Carolina playing an American Athletic Conference team (possibly Memphis) in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3.