COLUMBIA – Older Clemson players don’t have particularly fond memories of their last visit to Williams-Brice Stadium.
There was a halftime incident between the South Carolina student section and Clemson players, though it never got out of hand during the Tigers’ 31-17 loss to USC in a top-10 matchup on Nov. 30, 2013. However, multiple players reported harsh treatment from the Gamecocks’ fan base in 2011.
“When I went, it was my freshman year. It was very ugly. I felt like they were really rude fans,” fifth-year senior receiver Charone Peake said. “They were making some pretty wild comments as we were headed to the locker room. That’s pretty much all I remember.”
“We walk into that stadium and we see lighters or batteries or cans of stuff thrown at players,” said senior left guard Eric Mac Lain, who was a redshirt in 2011. “I was like, ‘wow, this is something else.’ The next time we went there, my sophomore year, the same thing. It’s a constant reminder this is the real deal.”
Then in 2013, “after we lost, we were all so down, and people were throwing stuff at us,” junior tight end Jordan Leggett said. “I feel like they really hated us. So I was excited to play them again (in 2014,) and we ended up winning.”
As the Tigers spoke this week, they anticipated every bit the hostile environment before, during and after Clemson puts its No. 1 ranking on the line at 3-8 South Carolina – even if it’s a noon kickoff.
“When we pull up in the buses, they’ll be rocking the buses. It makes you think if we have enough police escorts,” Leggett said. “But other than that, it definitely hypes you up. I like when people talk mess about us, because it ends up in us playing better.”
Not all the Tigers recalled a specifically dangerous situation.
“Fans obviously run their mouth. I’m sure our fans run their mouth,” junior linebacker Ben Boulware said. “But nothing out of the ordinary that I can remember my freshman year.”
Ask most Clemson fans if they’d prefer South Carolina be 11-0 or 0-11 at the time of matchup, and the typical answer is the latter, preferring the rival loses every game rather than reaches a high spot on the ladder with a chance to knock them down.
That’s not how players look at it.
“I’m upset. Takes away from our strength of schedule,” said Mac Lain, a big tongue-in-cheek. “I’d rather them be No. 2 in the nation and this be an 8 o’clock game on ABC. No, I don’t have any satisfaction from them losing other than to us.”
Hate is also a relative term for coaches and players, who have a little different perspective than fans.
“You dislike them on that day. You’re not going to say you love those guys down there, but you got friends, so you respect them,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “You don’t necessarily have a distaste maybe as a fan does throughout the entire year. But on gameday, you understand your job.”
South Carolina won 18 consecutive games at Williams-Brice Stadium from 2011-13, but since the 2014 opener the Gamecocks have six wins and six losses at home. The Gamecocks have won the past three at home vs. Clemson, by an average of 17 points, though the programs are in different places in 2015.
“Road games are hard to win, especially when you go to a place that’s got a tough environment. They certainly have that down there,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Their fanbase is passionate about their team.
“But that really doesn’t have anything to do with the game. We have to play well. It starts with how you play between the lines, whether you’re at home or on the road. We’ve been a good road team that has been able to win in different ways, but this will be a big challenge for us, for sure. Our job is to go play well and hopefully if we do, it won’t be very loud.”
Indeed, Clemson is taking aim at its first perfect slate in road games since a 5-0 mark in 1995. Suggestions the Gamecocks are fueled by extra motivation based on a there’s-no-tomorrow factor were dismissed quickly.
“This is our national championship game, too,” Swinney said. “This game isn’t any more important to them than it is to us, I promise you.”
Added junior defensive end Kevin Dodd: “Their season may be over, but how special would it be to knock off the No. 1 team? I know they’ll bring their very best shot. The Gamecocks are going to be ready to play when they play the Clemson Tigers.”