COLUMBIA — Beneath his usual smile, Jadeveon Clowney’s frustration was clear after his team’s victory Saturday against Mississippi State.
Yet again, South Carolina’s junior defensive end was held without a sack. Yet again, Clowney missed opportunities, most vividly when he slid over MSU quarterback Dak Prescott’s back in the fourth quarter.
The play ended with Clowney watching Prescott’s 11-yard touchdown run.
“I was kind of frustrated about that,” Clowney said. “I think I played a bad game, but it’s going to get a lot better than what it is. As long as the defense has my back, we all got each other’s back, everybody might have a bad game. But you just hold it together as a team.”
Plays like these — the near-miss variety — were not supposed to happen to Clowney this season. Instead, they’ve been frequent.
The Gamecocks entered their November bye week with Clowney stuck on two sacks. He was expected to surpass that total by USC’s first open date in September.
Sure, Clowney’s mere presence on the field changes the game. He remains arguably the most game-planned against defensive player in college football, but that’s a consolation title — much less appealing than “Heisman Trophy candidate” or even “the SEC’s sack leader.”
A true game changer is expected to make game-changing plays, not merely slide over the quarterback’s back.
“He knows as well as everybody that he’s missed a couple,” USC defensive line coach Deke Adams said. “He’s left some out there, but it is what it is. He’s being blocked by two or three guys, and there are times when he’s had a chance to make a couple plays that he didn’t. He knows that.
“He’s playing hard. That’s all we can ask him to continue to do, is play hard and those things will happen.”
Clowney’s season started explosive enough. He had two sacks through three games, and it looked like he was off to another dominant fall.
Instead, his numbers sharply dropped.
On Thursday, Clowney was dubbed a semifinalist for the Rotary Lombardi Award, given to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker. He was one of four defensive ends on the 12-player list, a surprising distinction given his lack of production.
Clowney hasn’t had a sack in his past five games, going back to USC’s win over Vanderbilt on Sept. 14. That feels like five months ago. It’s the longest sack drought of his career, surpassing a four-game streak his freshman season. Clowney ranks 28th in the SEC in sacks and 13th with 6.5 tackles for loss.
Last season, Clowney was second in the league with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.
“You know, teams are doing a lot of chipping, triple team and double team, running away,” Clowney said. “I’m just out there to do my job. So if the ball is going away from me, just chill on the backside.”
Adams pulled out the old cliché, saying part of Clowney’s diminished production is sacrificing individual stats for team success. The Gamecocks’ defensive numbers support that theory. Despite only 27 tackles from its star, USC ranks sixth in the SEC with 22.1 points allowed per game and fifth with 354.1 yards allowed per game.
Junior defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles is the biggest benefactor of the extra attention Clowney hoards. Quarles is having the type of season that could land him on the all-SEC first team, second in the conference with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Quarles says his sacks are a byproduct of hard work, but he knows Clowney’s presence helps.
“It opens up a lot of opportunities,” Quarles said. “It kind of, I don’t want to say makes you mad, that people think that’s the only reason that things are opening up for me. I work hard just as well as any other man does, but it’s all a system. You get your plays when you get them, and you make plays when you can.”
Slowly, opposing offenses are starting to recognize Clowney isn’t the only threat on USC’s defensive line. Against Mississippi State, Quarles said he saw more double teams, with the Bulldogs using a guard on either side of the center to help block him.
Maybe it’s enough to help turn Clowney’s season around. In the trenches, production is often based on simple math. The more blockers one lineman faces, the more chances for a teammate to make plays. If Quarles continues to draw double teams, Clowney will get more opportunities.
It can’t come soon enough. Clowney said he had a “bad game” Saturday. Question is, how many bad games does it take to have a bad season? The junior doesn’t want to find out the answer.