Sapakoff: Beware the Clemson Tiger by the tail
Six turnovers in, Clemson players and coaches got an earful from the South Carolina faithful Saturday night.
Brief chants of “Da-bo! Da-bo!” were quickly drowned out by louder chants of “S-E-C! S-E-C!” as Gamecocks fans celebrated at Williams-Brice Stadium.
After the 31-17 victory was in the books and the rivalry streak extended to a South Carolina-record five straight wins, no one in the Clemson traveling party went Pedro Martinez with, “I just tip my hat and call the Gamecocks my daddy.”
The former Boston Red Sox pitcher, frustrated with Bronx domination, let go with that classic during the 2004 regular season (substituting “Yankees” for “Gamecocks”).
Maybe some of the Tigers need to throw a similar pitch, a hybrid delivery of honesty and sarcasm. It worked for Red Sox Nation, currently celebrating World Series fun for the third time in 10 years.
Words alone won’t beat the Gamecocks.
Clemson also needs hard cash, top recruits, consistent player development and a much better grip on the football.
But beware the ticked off Tiger. What doesn’t get Swinney fired makes Clemson stronger. These people are a proud bunch — fans, donors, players, ex-players. This is the school that practically invented the athletic booster club, and new athletic director Dan Radakovich doesn’t seem like a patient guy.
The swell of Clemson disgust for 0 for 5 has tidal wave potential.
Bowl season is a start. For all the college football and ESPN bias favoring the SEC, the final year of the BCS system discriminates against the premier league by allowing only two teams from each conference in BCS bowls. Thus, No. 13 Clemson likely will get a much bigger bowl showcase — perhaps a glitzy Orange Bowl matchup with Alabama — while No. 8 South Carolina unfairly settles for a lesser Florida bowl.
“We started this thing together way back in early August, and we’re going to finish this thing together,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “We’re not going to quit. We’re going to pull together, we’re going to rebound and get this thing going again. We’re going to respond.”
‘We’re going to respond’
South Carolina reacted accordingly to Clemson control in both football and baseball. Hard to believe, but before the Gamecocks’ 2009 football win over Clemson at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Tigers won nine of 10 games in Columbia.
After Jack Leggett took the Clemson baseball program to back-to-back College World Series appearances in 1995 and 1996, former athletic director Mike McGee countered by hiring head coach Ray Tanner away from N.C. State. McGee also hired Spurrier.
Things can turn around quickly. Radakovich knows that; he worked under McGee at South Carolina.
By many common statistical measures, football fortune should have turned Clemson’s way Saturday night. For the first time in The Streak, the Tigers outgained South Carolina (352-318).
Clemson had the leading passer in the game (Tajh Boyd), the leading rusher (Roderick McDowell) and the leading receiver (Sammy Watkins).
Vic Beasley of Clemson outsacked former Heisman candidate Jadeveon Clowney, 2-1.
The Tigers played well in the third quarter, making a comeback after South Carolina’s sophomoric game-day managers played a dumb farmer skit on the video board and the school’s high school-quality band attempted to mock Clemson fans with a halftime rendition of “Old McDonald Had a Farm” (memo to band members: study Ohio State on YouTube).
It’s hard to do all that stuff and lose by 17 points.
‘What if?’ for USC, too
But turnovers are the tale of South Carolina grabbing the Tigers by the tail for half a decade. The Gamecocks have a 15-3 edge in the series: 3-2 in 2009 (34-17 win), 3-0 in 2010 (29-7), 1-0 in 2011 (34-13), 2-1 in 2012 (27-17), 6-0 in 2013.
“We beat ourselves,” Watkins said. “This isn’t Clemson football.”
From experience, the Gamecocks can’t help but think differently.
“We earned it,” South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton said. “It wasn’t given to us.”
South Carolina has “What if?” restlessness of its own.
What if the Gamecocks played better at Tennessee, a 5-7 team Clemson pummels any Saturday of the season?
What if the Gamecocks were about to spend a high-profile week game-planning for Auburn?
Fresh off a fifth consecutive double-digit victory over an archrival, you would have to like South Carolina’s chances to win a conference title.
Clemson should have such problems.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.