NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - INSIDE SLANT
Being from Fort Myers, Fla., Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins didn't quite grasp the Tigers' rivalry with in-state foe South Carolina when he joined the program in 2010, but it didn't take him long to become sufficiently acquainted.
"I was amazed by the hatred that both of the teams had," Watkins said. "Now I understand it. It's about ruling (the state) of South Carolina."
South Carolina has reigned supreme of late, winning four consecutive games in the series, and Watkins hasn't exactly had his best games against the Gamecocks -- he has just eight catches for 76 yards in two games against South Carolina.
"This has got to be a statement game for me," Watkins said.
There's plenty at stake for Clemson and Watkins, who take a 10-1 record and No. 6 BCS ranking into Saturday's showdown at Williams-Bryce Stadium in Columbia in the first match-up of top-10 teams in the 104-year history of the series.
The Tigers still appear to be Orange Bowl bound and are hoping for back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time in school history. But achieving those goals will be easier said than done. South Carolina has won a national-best 17 consecutive games at home, and quarterback Connor Shaw has never lost a home game.
"They've got plenty of guys that can make big plays, and they've made some critical plays at critical times in a lot of big games," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Those are the marks of a good team.
"But I feel like we're playing our best football of the season."
Watkins certainly is. He became Clemson's career receiving yardage leader last week and has 78 receptions for 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He has a school-record seven 100-yard games this season and is projected to be one of the top receivers available should he choose to enter next year's NFL draft.
"Sammy's got a decision to make because I don't see any way possible that he's not one of the top 10 picks out there," Swinney said. "But we haven't had that discussion with him. He'll have to make that decision when the time comes."
The time is coming, to be sure, but Watkins is intent on finishing with a flourish regardless of his destiny.
"Beating South Carolina is one of our last goals for the year," Watkins said. "We take pride in playing those guys, and I can't wait to play them. It would mean a lot because we'd be 11-1 and set ourselves up for next year in the top 10.
"We've got to control what we can control and go out there and have fun. We can't have guys pressing. We've got to have fun while competing at a high level."
NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - NOTES, QUOTES
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--QB Tajh Boyd owns 52 Clemson records, but he still doesn't own a victory over arch-rival South Carolina. "We've done some great things here and I've done some great things here, but this is one of those things that has become a burden to us," Boyd said. "We've just got to go out and find a way to get it done." Boyd, who was named one of 10 finalists for The Manning Award on Tuesday, has struggled in past games against South Carolina, passing for just 266 total yards in two starts; he's averaged 297.4 yards passing in his other 36 career starts.
--LT Brandon Thomas is a senior All-ACC-caliber lineman, but like many of his teammates, he hasn't had good games against South Carolina. Last year the Tigers' offensive line gave up 4.5 sacks to Gamecocks DE Jadeveon Clowney. "Brandon did not play well last year against him, but has played well this year," Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "Brandon is the most consistent player we've got. (Blocking Clowney) will be a great challenge for him."
--S Jayron Kearse has big shoes to fill in Clemson's biggest game of the year. The freshman safety will replace Travis Blanks in the starting lineup after Blanks suffered a season-ending ACL injury against The Citadel on Nov. 23. "Jayron likes the challenge," Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "He doesn't shy away from it. That may be na?ve to a degree, but I'd much rather have that than have him all freaked out about it. I would expect him to be a guy who goes out there and doesn't flinch." Kearse, a 6-4, 205-pounder, ranks second on the team with three interceptions and has accumulated 36 tackles -- one more than Blanks -- despite playing 184 fewer snaps this season.
--Clemson's defense has four defensive returns for touchdowns this year, the most by a Clemson team since 2006. The Tigers' run of return success began against S.C. State in the second game of the season, when Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson returned interceptions for touchdowns. DE Vic Beasley joined in on the fun against Boston College on Oct. 12, returning a fumble 13 yards for a score. Finally, senior LB Quandon Christian notched his first career score by scooping up a fumble and rambling 22 yards for a touchdown on Nov. 23 against The Citadel.
SERIES HISTORY: Clemson leads the series 65-41-4, but South Carolina has won four straight. It is the third-longest uninterrupted series in the nation at 104 games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's never about who we play, it's about how we play. But yeah, this one has a little more juice to it." -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney on facing arch-rival South Carolina
NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Senior RB Roderick "Hot Rod" McDowell will carry the bulk of the load this week by necessity. Although he could play if needed, backup Zac Brooks is banged up again, as are third- and fourth-team RBs D.J. Howard and C.J. Davidson. J.J. McCullough, a tight end, was moved to running back a few weeks ago and rushed for 43 yards against The Citadel on Nov. 23. McDowell has proven to be plenty durable, however, and he should get plenty of opportunities to continue his quest for a 1,000-yard season; he's at 845 and counting.
Scouting the passing game: QB Tajh Boyd doesn't exactly have a history of success against the Gamecocks, which is cause for some concern. In two games against South Carolina, Boyd has tossed two touchdowns and three interceptions and completed 41.5 percent of his passes; in the other 36 starts of his career, he's completing passes at a 65.3-percent clip. Still, Boyd has plenty of weapons at his disposal, and if Martavis Bryant and Mike Williams can come up with contributions to complement the game-breaking Sammy Watkins, it could go a long way toward a good night for the Tigers.
Scouting the run defense: Clemson will have to slow South Carolina RBs Mike Davis and Shon Carson to prevent coach Steve Spurrier's team from controlling the clock, and that means controlling the line of scrimmage. "We've got to be physical at the line of scrimmage," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "These guys run with a great deal of determination and toughness. If they're chewing the clock, it means they're running the ball effectively." DT Grady Jarrett is the stopper in the middle of Clemson's front line, and he'll have to have a big game if the Tigers are to keep the Gamecocks' rushing attack in check.
Scouting the pass defense: Clemson is without S Travis Blanks, but freshman replacement Jayron Kearse is a rapidly improving player who has shown a penchant for big plays. Darius Robinson, Bashaud Breeland and Martin Jenkins are playing the best ball of their careers, which has resulted in a pass defense that may be at a high point in coach Dabo Swinney's five-plus seasons. South Carolina's receiving corps doesn't have a big-bodied dominant player, but they do have a playmaker in Bruce Ellington. The Tigers surrendered a pair of touchdowns to Ellington in last season's 27-17 defeat.
Scouting the special teams: K Chandler Catanzaro is Clemson's Mr. Steady. He's made 38 of his last 40 field-goal attempts, including 12 of 13 this season, so the Tigers are in good hands should the kicking game decide the outcome. Clemson doesn't have a kickoff return for a touchdown this season, but the Tigers do have a game-changer in PR Adam Humphries. The junior receiver is averaging 10.7 yards per return this season, which ranks 22nd in the nation and is the best by a Tiger since C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford averaged double digits on punt returns in 2009.
--RB C.J. Davidson is questionable after suffering a knee injury at Virginia on Nov. 2.
--S Travis Blanks is out with a torn ACL suffered Nov. 23 against The Citadel.
--RB Zac Brooks is questionable with a knee injury.