SAPAKOFF COLUMN: USC takes leadership edge into Outback Bowl game against Michigan
TAMPA, Fla. — South Carolina football players won the Outback Bowl bowling competition, whipping Michigan fair and square on “luxury lanes” in a Splitsville showdown.
Though the Gamecocks are favored in the actual football game Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium, this was an upset. Bowling is as attached to the chilly Wolverine State as white pine, cherries and whining about the Lions.
Far from Death Valley but enjoying the payoff from a 27-17 victory over Clemson, the No. 11 Gamecocks continue to benefit from some of the best senior leadership in program has ever known.
Rarely is the usually nebulous “leadership” thing so visible as in one critical minute during South Carolina's last public appearance.
As the third quarter expired Nov. 24, the Gamecocks had the ball and a 20-17 lead. During the break, South Carolina players gathered in a big circle on the field. They jumped up and down while Clemson players ambled about their sideline.
True. Four plays later, Clemson's Xavier Brewer intercepted a Dylan Thompson pass in the end zone to give the Tigers momentary momentum.
But the Gamecocks put the game away with a 7:39 touchdown drive.
Jadeveon Clowney, Dylan Thompson and Bruce Ellington were the stars at Clemson.
But 10 senior starters are 4-0 against the Tigers and big reasons why South Carolina has gone from hoping to win a bowl game to expecting to win to something near certainty.
Head coach Steve Spurrier saw it earlier this season.
“As coaches, you let them know it's your team,” he said. “As coaches, you're here several more years, but this is your last go-round, you're seniors. You'll remember this the rest of your life. Let's try to make it special.”
Gamecocks senior starters include center T.J. Johnson, tight end Justice Cunningham, tailback Kenny Miles, defensiveend Devin Taylor, defensive tackle Byron Jerideau, linebackers Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens and DeVonte Holloman, cornerback Akeem Auguste and free safety D.J. Swearinger.
Clemson has nine senior starters, only one less than South Carolina.
Too often, comparisons in a counterpoint world are painted black and white. Nothing wrong with Clemson's senior leadership this year; the Tigers won 10 games and are ranked No. 14.
South Carolina's leadership has just been a little better.
“Maybe so,” Clemson junior quarterback Tajh Boyd said when I asked him to make a comparison. “I can't really tell. It's just one of those deals where the defense was out there for a long time and the offense wasn't out there long enough.”
Hollomon, committed to Clemson before Tommy Bowden left, notched his third career interception against the Tigers.
Clemson's longest gain in the fourth quarter was on Andre Ellington's 9-yard run and the accompanying 15-yard personal foul penalty charged to Swearinger for gloating about his thunderous hit.
No doubt, the play inspired the Gamecocks.
As Spurrier says, “(Players) will listen to a player that plays well with tremendous effort.”
Let's say No. 19 Michigan makes progress Tuesday in exacting some bowling lane revenge. Look for some South Carolina senior — or several — to do something about it.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.