No. 23 Clemson dogged by 5 straight rivalry losses
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Clemson’s unprecedented five-game losing streak to its most-hated rival is impossible for the No. 23 Tigers to ignore.
Coach Dabo Swinney hears about the South Carolina streak at the grocery store, church and even his breakfast table. In every meeting room in the football office at Clemson (8-3), clocks have been counting down to Saturday’s rivalry game before spring practice even started; the simple message posted underneath each is “0-5.” There are pictures all over social media of Swinney posing with people who subtly hold up five fingers — called “Fivebombing.”
“When you lose this one, you live with it every day,” said Swinney, who has beaten South Carolina just once, in 2008, which helped him keep his job after he took over in the middle of the season.
No team, including Florida State, has beaten Swinney more than the Gamecocks (6-5).
“You’ve got to play with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder, you’ve got to play with an edge, you’ve got to play with confidence as you try and do every game. That won’t change just because of we’re playing next week. Everyone knows the implications of this ballgame,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said.
While the in-state rivalry stakes are high, the stakes outside of South Carolina are fairly low. The teams’ rankings for this game are the lowest since 2008, when neither showed up in the AP poll. Both teams haven’t lived up to expectations and won’t be in the Atlantic Coast Conference or Southeastern Conference conference title games, though the Gamecocks became bowl-eligible Saturday by beating South Alabama.
Winning five in a row for the first time in 118 years of the rivalry allows the Gamecocks to downplay the game. Coaches and players have mentioned how they would need to prepare well, but haven’t talked a lot of trash. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward came the closest, pointing out the countdown clocks.
“The week they have been waiting for all season is here,” Ward said.
The key to South Carolina’s dominance: defense. The Gamecocks have held Clemson’s offense to 163 yards below its average per game and forced 15 turnovers while only giving up the ball three times.
South Carolina’s defense hasn’t been as dominant this season — they are next-to-last in the SEC, allowing 429 yards a game. But it might be hitting its stride, holding their last two opponents under 300 yards.
“I like this group we’re taking up there,” Ward said. “I like that we’re playing confident. We’ll go up there and give it our best shot.”
This year’s rivalry has a much different cast of characters. Gone are South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney, who kept his vow never to lose to Clemson, and Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd, who might have had the worst four games of his career against the Gamecocks.
A few holdovers remain, including Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson, who got a surprise start at Clemson in 2012 and threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns. “We’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Thompson said when asked about the rivalry.
Clemson’s quarterback situation isn’t as clear. Record-breaking freshman Deshaun Watson is still day-to-day with an injured knee and Swinney said the team likely won’t know whether Watson can start before Monday. If not, the Tigers will have to depend on senior Cole Stoudt, who has struggled at times.
The senior said he doesn’t want to leave without beating the Gamecocks at least once.
“We’ve got to prepare harder than ever because it’s something that we haven’t done yet,” Stoudt said. “There’s no one in that locker room that’s beat them since they’ve been here.”
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina, contributed to this report.