COLUMBIA – There wasn’t much excitement at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday in the Palmetto Bowl between South Carolina and Clemson. It was a status quo day all the way around.
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The third-ranked Tigers took control of the game early on offense, and USC continued its anemic offensive play down the homestretch of the regular season. That led to a Clemson 38-3 victory, its 27th in a row, while the Gamecocks concluded a disappointing 4-8 season.
The 12-0 Tigers now move on to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game against Virginia on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Clemson, the defending national champion, will be looking to earn a berth in the College Football Playoff for the fifth straight season.
It was also the sixth straight victory for Clemson over USC.
“To win six of these in a row – hasn’t happened in 79 years, 80 years – that’s a long time,” said Tiger head coach Dabo Swinney. “I’m just proud of this team and all that it has accomplished.”
Clemson received the opening kickoff and methodically drove down the field. It started at its 36-yard line following a 32-yard kickoff return by Travis Etienne. The Tigers drove to a first down and goal at the USC 3, and that’s where perhaps the only real excitement of the day occurred.
After Etienne ran for two yards on first down to the 1, South Carolina stopped him for no gain on three straight plays, forcing Clemson to turn the ball over on downs. Then, on USC’s first offensive play, quarterback Ryan Hilinski threw out of his end zone, completing a 21-yard pass to wide receiver Shi Smith. However, three plays later, Hilinski was intercepted by cornerback Derion Kendrick. He returned it 14 yards to the Carolina 23, and that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day.
“It was a frustrating day, been a frustrating year,” said USC head coach Will Muschamp said. “Take the first half. You have a great goal line stand, then you come out and throw an interception on third down and give them a short field.”
On third and nine from the USC 10, quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tee Higgins. Placekicker B.T. Potter added the extra point to make it 7-0 with 6:58 left in the first quarter.
Clemson would push the lead to 14-0 when Lawrence connected with Higgins again, this time on a 65-yard bomb with 3:46 left in the first quarter.
The Gamecocks, who had just 174 yards of total offense, got 76 of those on a drive that led to their only points of the game. USC held on to the football for 15 plays, eating over seven minutes off the clock, before settling for a 39-yard field goal by placekicker Parker White.
That made it 14-3 with 7:33 left in the first half. When Clemson was called for holding on the kickoff, it had to start at its 10-yard line, affording a possible ray of hope for USC. The Tigers took it away though, driving 90 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. Wide receiver Justyn Ross caught a 16-yard scoring pass from Lawrence that was initially ruled incomplete for Ross being out of bounds, but it was overturned. That made it 21-3 with 3:04 left in the first half.
“Third downs killed us in the first half defensively,” Muschamp said. “They converted six of eight, whether it was (Lawrence’s] legs or arm we’ve got to get off the field in those critical situations on third down.”
Clemson got the football back one final time in the half and got close enough to get a 46-yard field goal on the last play of the half to make it 24-3.
USC got the second-half kickoff and went three downs and out. Clemson started at its 31 and needed nine plays to get in the end zone to make it 31-3 with 9:59 left in the third quarter. Etienne’s 2-yard scoring run started sending many Carolina fans to the parking lot.
The Tigers picked up 527 yards of total offense, 316 through the air and 211 on the ground, and 30 first downs. Lawrence completed 26 of 36 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns and had a career high of 66 yards rushing on eight carries.
“I thought he was pretty special to watch, the way he played quarterback today,” Swinney said of Lawrence’s performance.
Ross had nine catches for 111 yards and one TD, while Higgins had three catches for 101 yards and two scores.
USC had 105 yards passing and 69 yards rushing. Hilinski completed 16 of 27 passes. Tavien Feaster, who came to Carolina from Clemson as a graduate transfer this season, rushed for 47 yards on 12 carries.
South Carolina had just nine first downs, while its punter, Joseph Charlton, punted seven times.
The Clemson defense hasn’t allowed an opponent to go over 300 yards of total offense this season.
“We’ve been so sound, so prepared with our back seven all season,” Swinney said. “They are seldom out of place.”
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