COLUMBIA — Dabo Swinney was asked to explain his team’s second-half slide earlier in the week, how Clemson had morphed from offensive juggernaut to a team in a tailspin. The Tigers coach said the second-half decline was easy to explain: turnovers, 11 of them in three games.
While turnovers did played a critical role in losses at Georgia Tech and N.C. State, turnovers do not explain a 34-13 loss to South Carolina on Saturday night. Clemson turned the ball over once, and that occurred late in the fourth quarter with the game nearly out of reach.
The loss proved the dramatic decline for Clemson (9-3) — free-falling from a No. 5 ranking in the BCS standings on Oct. 23 to losing three of its last four games — is linked to issues more numerous than ball security.
The issues are widespread and Clemson needs quick solutions to salvage its season in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech at 8 p.m. on Saturday in Charlotte.
Swinney acknowledged after Saturday’s game that the issues were more expansive than he originally thought. The stat sheet the Clemson coach studied was stunning: Clemson totaled a paltry 153 yards of offense. Quarterback Tajh Boyd posted an anemic line: 11-of-28 passing for 83 yards.
“(Boyd) didn’t have a chance,” Swinney said. “We didn’t protect the quarterback well. ... Sacks are a big part of this slide.”
South Carolina exploited Clemson’s suddenly suspect pass protection. Clemson has allowed 11 sacks in the last two games — five Saturday and six at N.C. State. Left tackle Phillip Price (right knee sprain) tried to return Saturday after missing the N.C. State game but he was replaced early in the game.
Boyd was being hit so often that offensive coordinator Chad Morris said his quarterback had begun to “hunker down,” concerned more with the pressure around him than his downfield reads. Boyd was blind-sided on the first play of the game, the victim of a corner blitz.
The Gamecocks were able to pressure Boyd with just a four-man front, allowing seven defenders to cover Clemson’s receivers.
That left Boyd with no time to throw and no open receivers. He looked nothing like the player throwing for 300 yards a game in September and October.
“It’s hard for him to keep his confidence when he’s back there getting rattled,” tight end Dwayne Allen said.
Clemson’s defense continued to struggle against the run, allowing 210 rushing yards after entering 85th in the nation in yards allowed per rush (4.57). Clemson allowed quarterback Connor Shaw to rush for 107 yards.
“The most disappointing thing to me is to let the quarterback beat us when we knew exactly what they wanted to do,” Swinney said. “We just couldn’t stop it.”
The issues don’t end there.
Clemson also continued to struggle on third down, converting just 8 of 31 third downs the last two weeks.
Even the return of Sammy Watkins couldn’t end Clemson’s slide. Watkins had just 39 receiving yards and dropped a critical would-be touchdown pass.
Said Swinney of the loss that continued the Tigers’ late-season tailspin: “It’s the lowest of lows.”