Tigers, still raw over streak, won’t take rival USC lightly

Clemson DT D.J. Reader celebrates after sacking South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson in the Tigers' 35-17 victory, Nov. 29, 2014 at Memorial Stadium. (Clemson athletic communications)

The difference in perspective is startling.

For freshmen and sophomores playing for No. 1 Clemson, this final regular season game of the 2015 season is viewed as, to recycle the cliche, “just another game.” A rivalry game against South Carolina, yes, but none too larger than any other.

“That’s for the fans and media to entertain. For me, it’s just another game, and I treat it like that,” sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “I didn’t really grow up around the rivalry, so it’s still kind of new to me. We’ll just see what happens next week.”

For the Tigers’ juniors and seniors? The bitterness lingers. They had to suffer through the business end of the five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks.

“That ate me up,” senior defensive tackle D.J. Reader said, “when I used to see people holding the five fingers up.”

Reader hails from North Carolina, home of the most storied college basketball rivalry in America.

“I’m a huge Duke basketball fan. The Duke-Carolina rivalry back home, people who cheer for North Carolina, they always get in my face when Duke loses, but when Carolina loses, I don’t talk to them about it,” Reader said. “That’s how I feel like this rivalry was. When we lost, it was always, ‘you guys suck, you guys this, that and whatever.’ When they lost, we just kind of moved on about our business and did what Clemson does. I think living through that streak motivated us a lot more.

“We don’t want to go back to those times. No way.”

The last time Clemson and South Carolina exchanged pleasantries on the final Saturday in November at Williams-Brice Stadium, both teams were in the top 10 and off to plum bowl assignments.

Times have changed. Players for South Carolina (3-8) have no tomorrow, while Clemson (11-0), which received 55 of the 61 first-place votes in Sunday’s Associated Press poll, has its sights set on a College Football Playoff berth. Those dreams can become a nightmare in the most devastating of fashions with one bad afternoon against the Tigers’ previous nemesis, which lost Saturday to The Citadel out of the Football Championship Subdivision.

“You know everybody who plays Clemson is gonna give their all,” junior safety Jayron Kearse said. “We’re the No. 1 team in the nation. Everybody is going to try to spoil what we’ve got, so I don’t see it being any different than what South Carolina is going to try to do. We have to go out there and give it everything we have and try to come out on top.”

Watson and his fellow young contributors like tailback Wayne Gallman, receiver Artavis Scott, left tackle Mitch Hyatt, cornerback Mackensie Alexander, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and kicker Greg Huegel have never played at South Carolina’s home stadium.

“Of course it will be crazy. But I’ve played in a lot of environments like Florida State and Georgia,” Watson said. “We just go out there and play Clemson football — the atmosphere isn’t going to hype us or demolish us from executing our plan.”

Clemson opened in gambling establishments as a 15½-point favorite over the Gamecocks. The past 15 matchups closed with the line at a touchdown or less.

“They’re going to show up Saturday and put their pads on just like we put our pads on,” Reader said. “It’s not any different for me. They’re hungry, and they’re going to come out and play. I know we’re going to show up.

“It’s not our problem about their (record); everybody goes through ups and downs in battle. They have good players just like we do. We’re going to go out there and put our best foot forward.”

The Palmetto Bowl kicks off Saturday at noon, televised by ESPN.

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