TAMPA, Fla. — It's the helmet-popping, hair-flying collision South Carolina football fans will watch over and over. And lots more times next week.
Jadeveon Clowney's remarkably thorough tackle of helpless Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl on Tuesday will haunt the Gamecocks' 2013 foes all offseason.
It's the highlight play of the bowl season, Clowney's greatest hit. His forced fumble (and one-handed recovery) was a huge part of South Carolina's 33-28 comeback victory.
Talk about ringing in the new year.
So many replays, so much quick response to Clowney's blue-sky Tampa Bay lightning. So many angles.
The 6-6, 256-pound sophomore from Rock Hill — mild-mannered “J.D.” to teammates, fearsome to foes — was a YouTube star before Tuesday. But 'The Hit' transcends football popularity.
By Wednesday afternoon, two of many YouTube versions of Clowney clobbering Smith had views of 722,022 and 155,150. The play could be seen over and over again Wednesday on SportsCenter as ESPN's top play of the day.
LeBron James was among those with instant Twitter reaction. The NBA superstar gushed to the 6.8 million-plus followers on his @KingJames account: “Watching this SC vs Michigan game and Clowney just made a big time hit/fumble recovery at the same time! He's the Freak Part 2 (Javon Kearse)”
Kearse (actually Jevon) was a standout NFL linebacker after an All-America college stint at Florida, where his head coach was — Steve Spurrier.
The 'hardest hit'
The “Wow” factor extended far, and as near as the South Carolina sideline at Raymond James Stadium.
“It was like two cars hitting,” South Carolina defensive coordinator Whammy Ward said. “I promise you, it was a big bang. That's the hardest hit I've seen in my coaching career. When he doesn't want to be blocked, he can't be blocked. That's all I can tell you.”
Made in the shade
Drop-in highlight viewers see just the glimpse. But what made Clowney's latest one-man show extra dramatic was the slow build up.
Michigan All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan handled Clowney one-on-one for most of the Wolverines' 82 plays. Clowney entered the game with a school-record 13 sacks for the season but didn't get one in the Outback Bowl.
“Clowney's good but we have a pretty good left tackle, too,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said of Lewan, a 6-8, 309-pound junior projected as first-round NFL draft pick in April.
“He made a few plays,” Michigan's record-breaking ballcarrier Denard Robinson said after rushing for 100 yards. “But we did pretty well against him overall.”
Clowney slipped back into the kind of inconsistent play Gamecock coaches have tried to alter since he arrived on campus.
“Jadeveon was tired in the first half,” Spurrier said. “I don't know if you sportswriters were watching him. (Offensive line) Coach (Brad) Lawing kept jerking him out and I jerked him out once. Finally, when the sun went down, it was amazing how cool it got. Jadeveon said he got some new life when the shade finally hit the ball field. He played a lot better when the shade came. If we come next year, let's start at two o'clock.”
The play before
Vincent Smith's ill-fated run attempt came just after a Big East officiating crew mistakenly gave Michigan a first down on a fourth-and-4 run to the Wolverines' 41-yard line. The chains were brought on to the field for a measurement, and everyone except the refs saw that the ball was a couple of inches short of a first down.
Spurrier was furious, and so were the Gamecocks.
Clowney: “I told the guys, 'Don't worry about it. There's eight minutes left in the game. A lot of ball left. I'm going to make a big play.'”
Maybe that's why South Carolina players on defense daringly taunted the Michigan offense before the snap.
Lewan was supposed to get some help from tight end Mike Kwiatkowski in Michigan's zone blocking scheme. But as Lewan turned to block inside, Clowney zoomed untouched through the gap between Lewan and Kwiatkowski.
“I just said, 'We're back at Georgia,'” Clowney said, recalling his forced fumble in South Carolina's 45-42 victory at Athens in 2011. “That same play, the same call, I made a big hit on Aaron Murray for the touchdown that Melvin (Ingram) picked up. We were right back in that situation. I was like, 'Dang, it happened all over. Repeat.'”
The play after
Connor Shaw and Ace Sanders immediately capitalized with a touchdown connection that briefly gave the Gamecocks control in the see-saw fourth quarter.
Thanks to Clowney's sudden energy burst.
“It's like a switch,” South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson. “He can turn it on and it's 'I'm going to take over' and he kind of does it.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 843 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff