TAMPA, Fla. — Managers were packing the gear away for the final time this season, and it was getting dark early Tuesday evening as South Carolina prepared to leave Raymond James Stadium after beating Michigan, 33-28, in a gem of an Outback Bowl.
Yet Jadeveon Clowney was still sitting and talking excitedly about what he had just done and how much still remains for him to accomplish.
“I think I can be a lot better next year,” he said. “I can work on my run stopping and getting my hands up and get stronger than I was this year. I’m going to be a lot better next year. Y’all just watch and see.”
Clowney, USC’s masterful sophomore defensive end, has one more year of college before he can depart for NFL wealth. As everyone in college football watches him next season to see if he can become the first exclusively defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, his team also merits attention after capping a sterling three-year run on Tuesday.
The Gamecocks are now 31-9 since the beginning of the 2010 season, including 8-7 against ranked teams. In coach Steve Spurrier’s first five seasons, they were 35-28 and 7-15 against the top 25. They ended last season ranked No. 9 — their first ever top-10 finish — and because they were No. 11 entering Tuesday, they will wind up in the top 10 again.
Of the 24 games they played, and 22 they won, since the start of last season, Tuesday’s was probably the most memorable, for its historical significance and final moments.
The Gamecocks ran 856 offensive plays in 2012. It is hard to imagine the last offensive snap of a team’s season unfolding more dramatically than USC’s did Tuesday, when Dylan Thompson hit Bruce Ellington for the game-winning 32-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left.
Clowney concluded his second season with 23˝ tackles for loss, four better than the old school record, and his penultimate such tackle was his biggest. He popped tailback Vincent Smith in the backfield with 8:15 left Tuesday and forced a fumble that resulted in USC taking over at Michigan’s 31 and immediately grabbing a 27-22 lead with a 31-yard touchdown pass.
“The only guy I’ve seen close to Clowney getting out of his stance in a pass-rush mode is Dwight Freeney and Corey Moore (at Virginia Tech),” said first-year USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. “Clowney is probably better than both of them. Clowney said his goal is to go to New York next year (for the Heisman Trophy ceremony) and I believe he’ll go. I’d be scared if I played against him because I know he’s (rushing) inside, outside. He can do it all.”
But he won’t be able to help USC build off back-to-back 11-2 seasons all by himself. The Gamecocks must replace defensive tackle Byron Jerideau, defensive end Devin Taylor, free safety D.J. Swearinger, cornerback Akeem Auguste and all three starting linebackers: DeVonte Holloman, Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens. Ward didn’t want to grade his Year 1 performance because the talent of those players let him take a simple approach.
“I’ll be more willing to grade myself after next season, when I’ve got a lot of young players playing,” he said. “When you play a lot of veteran players, you ought to be good. You should keep things simple and let your players do what they do best. I’m not a genius by any means, but I’m smart enough to know that if you’ve got good players, you let them play.”
The only contributors that USC’s offense definitely will lose are center T.J. Johnson, tight end Justice Cunningham and tailback Kenny Miles.
The 426 yards USC hung on Michigan, which entered the game ranked No. 10 nationally in total defense, are a valuable springboard to 2013, regardless of all the potential hand-wringing about whether Thompson or Connor Shaw is the better starting quarterback. Both shined Tuesday. Shaw threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 96 yards. Thompson threw for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
Despite the success of the past three seasons, Spurrier enters his ninth year in Columbia well aware that some of his goals for USC remain unachieved, particularly a Southeastern Conference championship.
“It could have been better,” he said of 2012. “It still could be better.”