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Gamecocks fight but fall short against No. 2 Clemson in wild 56-35 battle

The Tigers notched their fifth straight win against South Carolina in a wild one.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The Clemson Tigers secured a five-peat of their own in the highest-scoring Palmetto Bowl of all time, defeating the South Carolina Gamecocks 56-36 on Saturday night for rivalry bragging rights. While the final margin was comfortable for the Tigers, the game itself largely was not, as South Carolina made Clemson work for it.

The Gamecocks continued their recent trend of getting off to a hot start, using some Mon Denson rushes, a couple Shi Smith catches, and admirable patience from Jake Bentley to withstand Clemson’s pressure to march methodically down the field. South Carolina capped its 12-play, 75-yard drive with a 9-yard slant to Deebo Samuel, notching the first first-quarter touchdown scored against the Tigers all year.

As you’d expect, the Clemson offense was quick to respond, covering 75 yards of its own and finding the end zone in 4 minutes, 24 seconds, thanks to a 1-yard Adam Choice rush and featuring big gainers by receivers Tee Higgins and Hunter Renfrow (who else). When the Gamecock offense stalled and was forced to punt, Clemson added to its lead with a 22-yard Higgins catch, aided by quarterback Trevor Lawrence showing off some impressive mobility.

Trailing 14-7 as the second quarter opened, the Gamecocks got back to work, getting all the way down to the Clemson 3-yard line with some inventive playcalling from coordinator Bryan McClendon. Unfortunately, the South Carolina offense stalled, and the Gamecocks elected to roll the dice on fourth down rather than kick the field goal — and Bentley’s pass intended for Bryan Edwards was too high.

With the Tigers taking over on downs in the shadows of their own goalpost, Clemson nonetheless maneuvered into Gamecock territory, powered largely by Tavien Feaster runs. The South Carolina defense forced Clemson into a fourth and goal of its own, but defensive lineman Christian Wilkins rumbled in for the score out of the Tigers’ much-vaunted jumbo package to stake Clemson to a 21-7 lead.

Needing to mount some kind of answer, the Gamecocks got exactly what they needed when tight end Kiel Pollard slipped behind the Clemson defense for a 67-yard catch and run to narrow the gap to 21-14. The Tigers came roaring back, though, bumping the deficit back up two scores when a huge scramble by Lawrence set up another Choice rushing touchdown.

Not to be outdone, Bentley promptly hit Samuel in stride on a slant that he took 75 yards to the house, torching his defender and pulling the Gamecocks back within a touchdown. The momentum continued to trend in South Carolina’s direction when it finally forced Clemson to punt — but Bentley made his first mistake of the game, tossing an interception in his own territory.

The Tigers couldn’t cash in, however, missing on a potential touchdown catch and then shanking a 39-yard field goal. The Gamecocks entered the break trailing 28-21, having racked up 305 passing yards on a surprisingly suspect Clemson secondary.

The Tigers got the ball back to start the third quarter, and switched to a run-based attack with heavy doses of Travis Etienne and Choice. The Gamecocks had a chance to stop the Tigers from chewing up yardage, but Renfrow — again, who else? — came up with a big catch on third and long. Etienne polished off the drive with a touchdown plunge to put the Tigers up 35-21.

The Gamecocks opened their next series with a promising chunk play to Pollard, but went backwards from there and had to punt after Clemson got to Bentley for a bad sack. The Tigers made them pay, going back to the ground game with another Feaster rushing score to push the advantage to 42-21.

South Carolina mounted a response, zipping down to the goal line thanks to contributions from Smith, Denson, and a big gainer from Jacob August. But Clemson came up with another fourth and goal defensive stand, and the Gamecocks came away empty.

Clemson opened the fourth quarter on the move again, and Choice netted a hat trick with a 15-yard touchdown run to cap a lengthy 98-yard drive. The Gamecocks kept fighting and finally connected on a fourth down in Clemson territory when Bentley found Samuel for a 32-yard receiving score, making the margin 49-28.

After a Tigers punt late in the fourth quarter, South Carolina continued to keep at it, with Rico Dowdle busting a few big runs and Smith collecting a 20-yard touchdown catch in a lightning-quick 1:05 scoring drive. The Tigers put a bow on it with an Etienne dive with just 39 seconds left to provide the final 56-35 score — and possibly some bulletin board material for the Gamecocks next year.

Bentley and Lawrence both finished with record-high passing yardage for quarterbacks in this series, with Bentley rolling up 510 with five touchdowns and playing arguably the best game of his South Carolina career. Other top performers for the Gamecocks were Deebo Samuel (210 yards, three touchdowns), Shi Smith (109 yards, one score), and Mon Denson (16 carries for 62 yards) . While the offense generated 600 yards against Clemson’s vaunted defense, the South Carolina defense allowed an astonishing 744 yards — the most ever by a Gamecock defense. Notably, South Carolina dealt with a slew of injuries both before and during this game, missing key contributors like D.J. Wonnum and Jaycee Horn.

South Carolina falls to 6-5 and faces Akron at noon next week in a makeup game for the previously canceled Marshall contest.