There is no big secret for Clemson’s sudden offensive struggles. After doing a good job of protecting the ball for the first two months of the season, it is now turning it over at an alarming rate.
Trying to shore up that mistake-prone offense against South Carolina’s opportunistic defense doesn’t appear like it will be that easy.
The 18th-ranked Tigers again try to get their offense back on track Saturday night when they visit the No. 14 Gamecocks, who are seeking a third straight victory in the series.
Clemson (9-2) will play in next Saturday’s ACC title game, but it has hardly looked like a team worthy of a BCS bowl berth lately. After committing eight turnovers in winning their first eight games and reaching as high as sixth in the AP poll, the Tigers have turned the ball over 11 times in losing two of their last three.
“We’re lucky we hadn’t lost all three,” coach Dabo Swinney said after last Saturday’s 37-13 defeat to North Carolina State.
Tajh Boyd threw two interceptions and fumbled once last weekend, while running back Mike Bellamy also lost a fumble. The Tigers didn’t score a touchdown until their final drive and didn’t crack the 200-yard mark until late in the third quarter. They finished with 337 total yards - 128.3 fewer than their season average.
“A key to us winning is to keep from turning the ball over,” tight end Brandon Ford said. “If we can execute like we did the first eight games, that should be OK.”
That might not be so easy, however, against South Carolina (9-2).
The Gamecocks’ defense is tied for sixth in the FBS with 29 turnovers and forced six in winning the last two games against Clemson. It’s the first time South Carolina has won back-to-back games in the series since taking three in a row from 1968-70, and this is the first time both teams come in ranked since 2000.
“If you’re not in the conference championship game, this becomes the biggest game of the year for us,” coach Steve Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks have fallen short of the SEC championship but are still enjoying one of the best seasons in school history. They’ve reached the nine-win mark for just the fourth time and have a chance to match the single-season school record of 10 victories set in 1984.
South Carolina is in this position thanks in part to ranking fifth in the FBS in total defense (279.5 yards per game) and second against the pass (137.5). The Gamecocks held Clemson to 511 yards combined in the last two meetings.
South Carolina’s offense has struggled with the dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia and season-ending injury to running back Marcus Lattimore, but the Gamecocks finally showed some signs of life in last Saturday’s 41-20 win over The Citadel.
They amassed 473 yards - the first time they surpassed 318 in five games - as Connor Shaw threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 90.
Brandon Wilds had another strong game as Lattimore’s replacement, rushing for 109 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. He has hit the 100-yard mark in three of the last four contests.
“Might have been the best offensive game since I’ve been here,” Spurrier said. “We’re happy to have won it, and we’ll enjoy having nine wins and regroup to see if we can give Clemson a game.”
Watkins, who ranks second in the ACC with 1,034 receiving yards and first with 10 touchdown catches, was sidelined last week with a shoulder injury.
Price sat out with a sprained knee ligament sustained the previous week in a 31-28 win over Wake Forest. The patchwork offensive line allowed six sacks - the same number it surrendered in the previous four games combined.
“They understand the importance of this game,” Swinney said of his team. “South Carolina has been a good football team in the last few years. They’re a good team. But so are we. And that’s what makes this game great.”