COLUMBIA – Melvin Ingram scooted through Clemson’s offensive line with one quick move. Ingram, South Carolina’s senior defensive end, had lined up at tackle for this third-and-10 play at USC’s 15-yard line with 14 minutes left in Saturday night’s game. Clemson, down 14 points, started this drive at USC’s 36 and desperately needed to score a touchdown.
The Tigers’ hopes of doing that slipped way with each stride Ingram took toward Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. Ingram reached Boyd nine yards behind the line of scrimmage and pulled him down. Clemson settled for a 40-yard field goal, making too small of a dent in USC’s lead on a night when the Tigers’ offense, so dominant earlier this season, proved no match for the Gamecocks’ defense, especially in the red zone.
USC’s offense certainly did its part in a historic 34-13 win that had the 83,422 white towel-waving fans at Williams-Brice Stadium bouncing so furiously that the press box swayed several times. The Gamecocks out-gained Clemson 425-153 and quarterback Connor Shaw threw for 210 yards and ran for 108.
But it was the Gamecocks’ defense, which so looked forward to this showdown with a dangerous offense, that stuffed the Tigers when it had to. Never was that more apparently than on the drive that ended with Ingram’s sack. Two plays earlier, Clemson had first and 10 at the 15. The Tigers got a no-gain run and an incomplete pass, putting Ingram in perfect position for an all-out pass rush. All told, the Tigers reached the red zone three times Saturday and got one touchdown.
Now, the Tigers (9-3) must regroup for next weekend’s ACC championship game against 11-1 Virginia Tech in Charlotte. The Gamecocks (10-2) ended the regular season with a satisfying performance after failing to return to the SEC championship game. They will learn their bowl destination a week from today.
There was much at stake as the No. 14 Gamecocks and No. 18 Tigers met for the 109th time, and just the fifth time when both teams were in the top 25. USC was trying to win 10 games in a season for just the second time ever, and first time since 1984. Clemson was angling for its first 10-win season since 1990. USC hadn’t won three straight games over its rival since 1968-70.
The Gamecocks tied that streak Saturday with their third straight convincing win over Clemson, having won by 22 points last season and 17 in 2009.
USC led 17-10 at halftime and out-gained Clemson 271-81, as the Tigers’ offense looked more like the group that sputtered to 337 yards in last week’s loss at North Carolina State than the one that gouged Auburn and Florida State 624 and 443 yards in season-defining September wins.
The Gamecocks jumped out to a 10-0 lead after Connor Shaw’s 49-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Bruce Ellington, of Berkeley High, with 6:36 left in the first quarter. Ellington showed his speed, and boosted USC’s uninspiring downfield passing game, by getting behind defensive backs Xavier Brewer and Bashaud Breeland to catch his first career touchdown pass in stride in the end zone. The Gamecocks scored points on their first two drives and were in great shape.
Clemson responded by taking advantage of a USC special teams mistake. Punter Joey Scribner-Howard fumbled a low snap, tried to punt it anyway and had it blocked by Drew Traylor. The ball bounced across the grass and Chad Diehl recovered it at the USC 26. Clemson had first and goal at the 10, but USC held the Tigers to a field goal that tied the game at 10 with 6:14 left in the first half.
Then Clemson made a special teams error of its own, kicking off out of bounds after tying the game. USC took over at its own 40 and drove for a touchdown – a nimble, 15-yard run by Shaw on third and 5 with 1:55 left. Shaw has relied on his natural athleticism while becoming more comfortable as a pocket passer this season, his first as a starter. And on the touchdown run, a draw, he dodged several defenders before slipping into the end zone.
Shaw in the first half accounted for 80 of USC’s 160 rushing yards, as the Tigers once again struggled against a mobile quarterback.
USC continued to do damage in the second half, getting a five-play, 66-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the half, to go up 24-10. USC put the game away after strong safety DeVonte Holloman’s 26-yard interception return gave the Gamecocks the ball at Clemson’s 19-yard line with 6:01 left. USC needed just two plays to score a touchdown and go up 34-13 lead.
The towels waved again. USC’s unofficial anthem, “Sandstorm,” blared. Down on the sideline, in the final moments, USC’s players poured ice water on coach Steve Spurrier And as the fans at Williams-Brice relaxed and did the Wave, they soaked in something that hadn’t happened in Columbia in 27 years – a 10-win season.