Buchholz wins thriller with 35-yard field goal
BY A FOOT
Clemson 23, Gamecocks 21
COLUMBIA — A year ago, this game was defined by the kick Clemson missed.
Saturday, it became about the one the Tigers made.
Vanquishing the ghosts of Jad Dean's push right at Death Valley, Mark Buchholz sent through a 35-yard field goal as time expired to kick Clemson to a heart-pounding 23-21 victory against South Carolina in front of 82,410 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The kick sent South Carolina's spiraling season, most likely, to a crushing end. And it sent strains of "Tiger Rag" into the night.
"I got down on my knees and prayed with the other guys before he even kicked it," said Tigers running back James Davis, who'd said a loss would've made Clemson's season a "failure." "I didn't see it; I had my head down. I just waited until the crowd started yelling and knew we had it."
Down a point with two minutes to play, the Tigers went 61 yards in nine plays — converting once on fourth down — to set up Buchholz, who'd missed two of his last three kicks.
He was wide right from 35 yards to end the first half. Buchholz was short from 54 yards last week in an effort to tie Boston College, keeping Clemson's ACC title hopes alive.
His last try sailed through without flaw.
"He was due," Bowden said of the first Clemson last-second game-winning field goal since 1986. "The odds were in his favor after missing two."
Clemson (9-3) now awaits its bowl berth, likely in the Gator or Chick-Fil-A bowls.
Meanwhile, South Carolina's freefall from No. 6 to 6-6 is complete.
The Gamecocks, who haven't won since Oct. 13 when they knocked on the top five's door, said they're operating under the principle that they won't play in a bowl.
"I think we might be done," said USC receiver Kenny McKinley, who had 125 yards, a pair of scores and set the single-season receptions record.
Added coach Steve Spurrier, now mired in his career's first five-game losing streak: "We're 6-6. That's where we are. We'll see what happens next."
For about an eight-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, it looked like the Gamecocks might have another game.
Blake Mitchell found freshman Dion Lecorn in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown with nine minutes to go.
In his last home game, Mitchell, the 23-year-old senior, was 18-for-31 for 284 yards and three scores. He threw two interceptions, one on the first play of the game and one late on a tipped ball at the line.
Mitchell's third TD toss gave USC its first lead, 21-20.
"We had a lead there," Spurrier said, "but we weren't quite good enough to hold on."
South Carolina had a chance to run the clock down — or out — but Cory Boyd got 2 yards on third-and-4 and USC had to punt.
"We thought we might could run for it for 4 yards," Spurrier said. "That was dumb on my part. We hadn't run for 4 yards hardly all night."
USC had 80 rushing yards, 74 of which were Boyd's. Clemson has held its past 6 opponents under 100 rushing yards.
Despite a slew of mistakes that looked dooming, Clemson got the ball with 2:09 to play at its own 22.
Quarterback Cullen Harper immediately found Aaron Kelly for a 26-yard gain to the 48. But then Clemson went backward, getting into a third-and-18 jam at the 40.
Harper then found Kelly, a goat in the Boston College loss because of a last-minute drop near the end zone, on three consecutive passes of 14, 12 and 18 yards.
"We weren't quite good enough to stop them," Spurrier said.
That got Clemson well into Buchholz's range. And it got South Carolina into heartbreak range, familiar territory in this series.
The Tigers' victory prevented South Carolina's first back-to-back wins in the series since winning three in a row in 1968, '69 and '70.
Clemson is 9-1 in Columbia since 1987, 9-2 against the Gamecocks in the teams' past 11 meetings.
"We couldn't stop third-and-18," Spurrier said. "We're not real good."
When it counted, Buchholz's kick was.
"If I'd have missed it," said Buchholz, maligned some this fall for playing both football and soccer, "you guys would be ripping me for missing two field goals instead of making the game-winner."
Reach Travis Haney at firstname.lastname@example.org.