COLUMBIA — No defense played better against Clemson last season than South Carolina’s. The Gamecocks held the Tigers to 153 yards in a 34-13 win in Columbia – 170 yards fewer than Clemson gained in any other game last season.
In the Gamecocks’ first matchup with offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ fast-paced scheme, they held the Tigers to 60 plays, 16 fewer than their average for the season.
Clemson wound up being Ellis Johnson’s final game as South Carolina’s defensive coordinator. His defensive backs coach, Lorenzo Ward, took over for him before the bowl game, when Johnson left to become Southern Mississippi’s head coach. But surely in that masterpiece of a performance against Clemson, Ward could find some lessons to apply to this Saturday’s South Carolina-Clemson game (7 p.m., ESPN).
To be sure, there are similarities between last year and this year. Clemson again has one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, USC one of the stingiest defenses.
Many of the key players return for both teams, including Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, who was sacked five times in last season’s game. And USC defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, who each sacked Boyd once and harassed him several other times - a key factor in USC’s win.
While familiarity with Clemson’s offense should help USC, Ward is wary of the differences between last year and this year.
Two of the Tigers’ most valuable offensive players are healthier than they were last year – wide receiver Sammy Watkins and tailback Andre Ellington. Boyd is more mobile, and his running ability requires more defenders to remain closer to the line, rather than dropping into coverage against Morris’ spread-the-field attack. And the game is in Clemson, which Ward believes will allow the Tigers to take less time between plays than they did last season in Columbia.
“I think that the pace of the game will be way faster this year than it was last year, because I think our home crowd did a great job and they had to make sure they were getting in the right play at the line of scrimmage a lot,” Ward said. “So we got a chance to get in the right defense. I think it’ll be a totally different tempo being that they’re playing at home.”
Clemson still ran 2.64 plays per minute last season at USC. In its other games, Clemson ran 2.69 plays per minute. This season, the Tigers are averaging 2.83 at home, 2.84 on the road. But Ward is well aware that Clemson had 102 plays at home last week against North Carolina State – a break-neck rate of 3.06 plays per minute.
Clemson will move fast when it has the ball. But two factors – efficient pressure and sound open-field play – are particularly critical for the Gamecocks as they try to minimize Clemson’s time of possession, as they did last year, when the Tigers had the ball for just 22:43.
USC must pressure Boyd with only its four defensive linemen for most of the night. The Gamecocks did it last year.
This season, they have pressured with more than their front four about 10 times per game, counting running plays, said defensive line coach Brad Lawing. That’s about the same rate as last season. Of USC’s 34 sacks, linemen have 26.
“Any time you can affect the quarterback with four guys, that’s a plus for your defense,” Lawing said. “We’ve been able to do that most of the season. We’re going to need to be able to do that on Saturday, too.”
Bringing just four leaves more players to sit back and handle the misdirection and quick-passing facets of Clemson’s offense. But even if USC has the luxury of dropping seven, they still must tackle in the one-on-one, open-field situations that Clemson’s offense so often puts defenders.
USC has done more tackling drills during individual periods of practice this year than last year. Saturday is an opportunity for the Gamecocks to demonstrate what they learned, because defensive backs coach Grady Brown said Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins are the two most athletic receivers his players have faced all season.
“I would hope that we’ll see how much (tackling drills have) paid off this weekend,” Brown said. “Because even if you don’t let them get behind you, if they catch it in front of you, if they make one person miss, they’ll go the distance.”
USC quarterback Connor Shaw didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday as he recovers from a sprained left foot. He originally hurt it Oct. 27 against Tennessee and aggravated it last Saturday against Wofford. USC coach Steve Spurrier said he will be evaluated today and Thursday to determine his status for Saturday.
Clowney sat out the Wofford game with a right foot injury that he played with for the previous five games. He was limited in Tuesday’s practice, but will be ready to play at Clemson, said Lawing, who added that if USC played a game Tuesday, Clowney would have been able to go.