With ‘bowl game’ looming, Elliott and Gamecocks try to regroup one last time

Interim head coach Shawn Elliott and South Carolina finish the season against No. 1 Clemson at noon Saturday. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

COLUMBIA — This week, the motivational tactics started early. Shawn Elliott took his South Carolina football team on Monday night to the annual “Tiger Burn,” a pep rally held on a USC rec field during which a large wood and paper tiger is set ablaze. Players, most of them attending for the first time, watched students cheer the effigy as it burned and crumbled.

“I didn’t know that many people actually showed up for something like that,” said senior offensive lineman Brandon Shell, a Goose Creek native.

If there’s ever a time for unprecedented steps, it’s this week. A South Carolina team in the midst of its worst season in 16 years and coming off its first loss to a Football Championship Subdivision squad in a quarter-century wraps up against No. 1 Clemson at noon Saturday. The Vegas point spread is at 18 and rising, as accurate an indicator as any of where the two rivals stand entering this finale.

Clemson (11-0) is bound for the ACC Championship Game, and perhaps the College Football Playoff. South Carolina (3-8) ventures into an uncertain offseason which will include a coaching change. No wonder, then, USC’s interim head coach took his team to a pep rally, and allowed players to hold a meeting and air any issues they might have.

“They actually wanted to talk themselves and get a few things off their chest to each other,” Elliott said Tuesday, at his final weekly press conference of the season. “We allowed them to do that. It wasn’t some private players meeting or anything like that, but they just wanted to say some things. And when they came out of that meeting, when you can kind of look at an individual and tell if they’ve got it or not. And I think everyone got it.”

What was said? “That was actually a personal thing between us as players, and we’re going to try to keep it that way,” said senior offensive lineman Mike Matulis. “That way, the confidentiality enabled us to get what we wanted off our chests.”

Entering last weekend’s 23-22 loss to The Citadel — the first FCS program to beat the Gamecocks since the Bulldogs did it 25 years ago — Elliott sensed that his team seemed off. The enthusiasm that had buoyed their performance in the weeks immediately following Steve Spurrier’s Oct. 13 resignation had ebbed after a loss to Florida, and the result was a clear letdown against a military school that handled USC despite a substantial size disadvantage along the line of scrimmage.

By taking his players to the pep rally and allowing them to vent, Elliott hoped his team would refocus. “Coming into yesterday’s team meeting, you saw a little different look,” he said. “And that doesn’t always result in positive play, (avoiding) missed assignments or playing hard, but there was more of a focused look and energy into what we had to prepare for this week and the No. 1 team in the nation in Clemson. The mentality seemed to be right on point.”

In an attempt to energize a USC team that will miss a bowl game for the first time in seven years, Elliott has tried just about everything — playing music at practice, reintroducing all-black uniforms, even breaking out a new alternate helmet. But he has his limits, and one is urging his players to shock the world against a heavily-favored opponent.

“Certainly not,” he said. “They are the No. 1 team in the country. It might be a shock to a lot of people, but not the world. Our team has to go out and play. We just have to get better. We really have to worry about what we can control and try to do the very best we can against a good football team. To look at those and say, ‘Let’s go shock the world,’ it’s almost like saying you guys don’t have a chance to go out and win this football game. You don’t sell that message to your team.”

And yet, there’s no denying what this noon finale at Williams-Brice Stadium means to a Gamecocks squad that has nothing to play for beyond this week. “We’re not going to a bowl game. This is our bowl game,” Matulis said.

“It’s a huge game for us, especially with them being No. 1, coming into our house,” he added. “It’s going to be very important for us to play as spirited and as hard as we can.”

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