CLEMSON — Coach Dabo Swinney often speaks about the growth of the Clemson football program under his stewardship.
This fall, the Tigers (10-2) won 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1987-1990. For the first time in a decade, Clemson did not stumble against a conference opponent it was expected to beat. The Tigers better played to a standard this regular season, earned a share of a third division title in four years, and broke a number of offensive records. Tommy Bowden’s resume contained few of these achievements.
But what Bowden did more often than the man who replaced him is something significant: he beat South Carolina.
Clemson lost to South Carolina, 27-17, for a fourth straight season on Saturday, something that had not occurred since the Eisenhower Administration. The Tigers fell to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll and No. 15 in the USA Today poll Sunday. With the loss, Clemson lost its chance of earning a BCS at-large berth and is almost certain to play in the Dec. 31 Chick-fil-A Bowl, where it will face another SEC opponent. And fair or not, for many, the loss and the bowl game will define Clemson’s season.
“This was a big game for us,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “Our goal was the BCS. But we do have an opportunity to finish strong and have one of the best seasons we’ve had in a long time.”
Clemson will wait until next week to learn for certain its bowl opponent and destination. In the meantime, the Tigers have to live with another loss to South Carolina, one of the few teams to slow Clemson coordinator Chad Morris’ offense.
“It hurts us all. We all feel it,” Morris said. “We all have to live with it.”
Morris said earlier in the week it was “unfair” to compare last year’s Clemson offense that lost to South Carolina to this year’s Clemson offense. After all, Boyd was more mobile this year, Clemson was healthier and in the second year of Morris’ system.
But the results were similar: South Carolina held Clemson to season lows in plays (59) and yards (328) and limited Clemson to 19 second-half plays. Boyd was once again harassed, unable to complete 50 percent of his passes, connecting on just 11 of 24 passes for 183 yards.
Boyd once again was pressured into poor decisions. He forced throws, including a back-foot toss that was intercepted late in the fourth quarter which ended Clemson’s last best chance Saturday.
“I didn’t see anything,” Boyd said of the key interception. “I kind of got hit in the process. It kind of just happened … (Pressure) definitely affected me, but at the same time I have to throw it away.”
Since Boyd took over for Kyle Parker in the second half of the 2010 game against the Gamecocks, Boyd is 32 of 71 for 229 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions against USC. He’s been sacked 14 times against South Carolina.
But Boyd was not helped by an offensive game plan that often featured attempts to single block USC star Jadeveon Clowney, a strategy ending in disaster. Boyd was not aided by an offense that departed from its short-passing identity. Boyd was not helped by a defense that could not get off the field in the third quarter.
For a fleeting moment in the first quarter, Boyd looked like a different quarterback than the one who played against South Carolina last season. Clemson looked like a different offense.
Boyd celebrated his first-quarter touchdown run by imitating Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s post-touchdown protocol, pretending to tear his jersey to reveal a Superman logo. But South Carolina continues to be Clemson’s kryptonite.