This is going to be a fun post to write, because, with a few of what turned out to be minor exceptions, this was a nearly flawless performance by Carolina.
Coming into the game, I (and everyone on both sides of the rivalry) said the game would be won up front. Carolina's offensive and defensive fronts had played well since the Arkansas game, while Clemson's had been exposed since midseason. The game played out precisely according to plan, and Carolina won the battle, controlling the line of scrimmage throughout. With a few exceptions, our offensive line played about as well as you could hope for from a patchwork outfit. Putting Mike Matulis back into the lineup has turned out to be one of the best personnel moves Steve Spurrier and Shawn Elliott have made this season, and I'm really looking forward to seeing Matulis develop next year. As far as the defensive line goes, it was complete mayhem in Clemson's backfield for most of the game. After trash talking our defensive line over the course of the week, Tajh Boyd got happy feet just about every time someone came near him, and he got hit hard early and often. The USC defensive line ended the day with five sacks and numerous hurries and forced throwaways. You really couldn't ask for a better performance from this group of stars.
A great pass rush always helps your secondary out, and that was the case yesterday. However, our defensive backs did their part, too. Other than a would-have-been TD that Sammy Watkins dropped, we never let a receiver break free and generally did a good job of contesting Boyd's deep throws, all of which were either dropped or broken up. At various points in the game, both Stephon Gilmore and Martey Markett covered Watkins, and both did an excellent job. DeVonte Holloman also shined, picking off a key pass to set up our final score and generally getting around the field a good bit.
Special teams, with the exception of the poorly snapped, blocked punt in the second quarter and the long Andre Ellington return in the second half, played well. Joey Scribner-Howard had a couple of excellent punts with his back to the goalline. Those were moments when field position could have given Clemson a chance to get back in the game, and our punter's leg kept them with their backs to the wall. Jay Wooten, after getting very few FG opportunities over the course of the year, hit two big ones last night. Kickoffs, outside of the aforementioned Ellington return, were solid.
On to the offensive skills positions. Needless to say, Kenny Miles had a special game. The coaching staff decided to let him stay in the game instead of Brandon Wilds after Miles showed a hot hand early, and Miles played well running, catching, and blocking. (Wilds's whiffed block on Andre Branch's sack may have had something to do with the staff's decision. That's one thing he'll need to work on during the off-season.) I loved seeing Kenny get this chance to show out. He's been a bit of a forgotten man after his promising freshman season, but, by all accounts, he's worked hard and waited for an opportunity to help his team. He got it last night, and he made us all proud. After the game, Kenny said he wants to come back for his senior season if the coaches will let him. If that's what he wants, I'd say he earned it.
You really just can't say enough positive about how Connor Shaw played in this game. What particularly impressed me is that he showed some improvement on his previous weak spots. Yes, he still took off running too early a couple of times. But on both long TD passes, he did something I haven't seen him do much this year: when the rush came, he stepped up in the pocket and bombed perfect strikes to the end zone. The early pass to Ellington was one of the best passes I've seen by a Carolina QB over the past decade and should dispel any lingering misconceptions about Shaw's arm strength. Shaw also, as expected, killed Clemson with his feet. If he can play at this level with any consistency next year, I think he has a real opportunity to work his way into All-SEC consideration.
As for the coaching, it gets an A+ in my book. Ellis Johnson's defensive scheme was spot on. For most of the game, he relied on the front four to get all the pressure he needed to make things easy for his secondary; that is, he played to our strengths to excellent effect. He also, though, dialed up a couple of perfectly masked blitzes that forced bad decisions by Boyd.
As for Spurrier, I thought it was his best gameplan of the season. After all the deserved criticism of his inability to accept this team's identity as a run-first, read-option team, we ran the option more or less all night in the biggest game of the season, with a few well-timed passes thrown in for good measure. And frankly, can you blame him for having trouble adapting? The offensive lineup we put on the field at the end of the year was much different than what we had at the beginning. Adapting to what we experienced this year was a tough job. It wasn't always a smooth ride, but in the end, Spurrier got it done to the tune of our first ten-win season in 25 years. I'll have more to say about this matter later this week, but this was one of Spurrier's best coaching jobs of his career. It will be hard to deny Les Miles or
A few more thoughts after the jump.
--Loved the TD pass to Jeffery. On TV, the announcers called for three straight runs, but I told my friends that I expected us to get Jeffery the ball for one last TD. Loved seeing him get the chance to be the star after the season he's had. Thanks for the memories, Alshon.
--Another bit of good news: there were several high-profile recruits in town this weekend, and we certainly did our part to get their signatures. The crowd was electric last night after a season of ho-hum atmospheres, and the Gamecocks played their best game of the season. Worries by offensive stars that this offense is sputtering were assuaged by a commanding, 34-point performance. Defensive stars should be salivating to be part of the one of the country's top five defenses. Just a perfect setup here to sway some top recruits.
--My biggest complaint about the game? Yet again, it was the officiating. The call on the muffed punt was probably the worst call I saw all year, and it likely effected a two-TD swing. There were also multiple missed facemask penalties and multiple missed holds. Even Clemson fans were talking about how lucky they got not to get called for several holds. Luckily, Clemson was in no way, shape, or form going to make a good game out of this contest, so the officiating didn't affect the outcome. But sheesh. Seems like we've had to deal with this crap every game this season. Oh, well. At least now we know it's not just SEC refs.
That's a wrap for this one. Later this week, I'll be back to discuss the pre-bowl season review, as well as to talk about possible bowl matchups.