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A Step Ahead
South Carolina outfoxed Clemson with a razzle-dazzle kickoff return and outplayed the Tigers in most every facet of the game
By Douglas S. Looney
Moments before Clemson entered Death Valley to take on archrival South Carolina, the Tiger players knelt on the blue carpet in their locker room and listened to coach Tommy West tell them that toughness and conditioning would have much to do with the outcome, and that those were strong areas for them. "But," he said, "the key is attitude. I want you to have the best time today you ever had in your dang life playing football."
With West's words ringing in their ears, the Tigers ran out and had what was -- for almost every player -- the worst dang time they've ever had playing football. The Gamecocks won 33-7. It could have been 53-7. The victory left South Carolina with a 6-5 record, its first winning season since 1990, and made it a likely candidate for an invitation to a minor bowl. The defeat left the Tigers 5-6 and in shock.
The scoreboard at the east end of Clemson Memorial Stadium says, 1981 NATIONAL FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS. At this juncture the past does not seem like prologue. Almost everything West and his staff tried last week failed, and nearly every idea they had was foiled.
Example 1: The night before the game West reflected on the season. "I've never said we've arrived, but we have come 100 miles," he said. "It doesn't matter where you are but where you are headed." He was pleased with the heading, generated by three straight wins going into Saturday's game. The Tigers, however, wound up with only 177 yards of offense, compared with 412 for the Gamecocks, leaving the Clemson defense -- which going into the game had been ranked 11th in the nation in average points allowed -- in shambles. At this point the Tigers are scratching their heads and heading back to the drawing board.
Example 2: West said his team would have to complete passes early to loosen up the South Carolina defense so that the Gamecocks "don't just dig their cleats in the dirt against the run." That seemed to be a plausible strategy, because the Gamecocks were last in the SEC in pass defense. Early in the second quarter, opportunity presented itself. Split end Kenya Crooks got wide open behind the South Carolina defense, but the pass from quarterback Nealon Greene was badly overthrown. Later in the quarter, Greene threw an on-the- money pass to split end Henry Guess. Alas, the ball bounced off Guess's hands and into those of Gamecock cornerback Corey Bell. Before that Greene had gone 317 plays without a turnover. The Gamecocks scored three plays later on an 18-yard TD pass from quarterback Steve Taneyhill to wide receiver Toby Cates. On the day, Clemson completed five of 20 passes for 55 yards.
Example 3: At halftime, with the Tigers trailing 14-7, the Clemson coaches told the defensive players that Taneyhill didn't want to run, only throw. They advised them not to worry about his running. In the third quarter Taneyhill ran twice for a total of 58 yards.
Example 4 (which is the best -- or worst -- evidence of Clemson's plans going awry): West also told his team during intermission, "We need to get the first points in this half. We have to set the tempo in the first five minutes. Fight your guts out for 30 minutes."
Prepared to do just that, Jeff Sauve kicked off to South Carolina's Brandon Bennett, who took the ball at the goal line and started upfield. As the Tigers were bearing down on him, Bennett stopped and threw a 35-yard lateral pass to Reggie Richardson, by trade a defensive back. Bennett saw the pass as a thing of beauty, not too high, not too low, just perfect. Richardson was less charitable: "It took forever to get to me. He did the best he could. He's a running back."
Countered Bennett, "It got there, didn't it?"
In any case, Richardson went 85 yards, to the Clemson six-yard line. Said Tiger defensive back Dexter McCleon, "We expected some trick plays from them but not on a kickoff return. That set the tone for the rest of the game."
Bennett -- whose 104 rushing yards brought his career total to 2,983, third on South Carolina's alltime list -- was rewarded for his nice or not-so-nice throw by being given the ball on the next play. He ran it in for a touchdown to put the Gamecocks in front 21-7. Worse, Bennett's score turned Clemson's spunk and spirit facing the final two quarters into depression and despair.
The lateral was a nervy call by first-year Gamecock coach Brad Scott, who had been an assistant at Florida State for 11 years under Bobby Bowden. Executed improperly, it's an easy pickoff for an alert defender on the far side of the field, and had that happened last Saturday in front of the largest college football crowd in the history of the state -- 85,000 people aching for an excuse to be loud -- the outcome easily could have been reversed. "If we throw it there and they catch it," said Scott afterward, "y'all would be sitting here talking about where my next job might be."
But Scott said he had drawn strength from the fact that while he was in Tallahassee, Bowden had called the play three times, and three times it had gone for touchdowns, though one was called back for a penalty. Nonetheless, this was a strange time for such high-risk trickery. South Carolina was dominating the game. Further, the Gamecocks could see that Greene's right shoulder, which he had injured while getting sacked in a loss to Florida State a month earlier, was hurting. In fact, after throwing two incompletions in Clemson's first offensive series of the second half, Greene, a freshman from Yonkers, N.Y., left the game for good. Finally, given that Clemson's offense was ranked 97th among the nation's 107 Division I-A schools going into the game, the Gamecocks hardly had cause for concern.
Scott, however, was wary because "our defense had struggled all year." Still, whatever works in football is usually considered brilliant, and so it was with Scott's gamble. And in these days when a common complaint about football is that it has become too predictable and therefore boring, Scott's call certainly added drama.
So did Taneyhill, the Gamecocks' sometimes unpredictable signal caller. He arrived in Columbia from Altoona, Pa., in 1992, long hair flowing beneath his helmet, and mouth in high gear. Before last season he even predicted that he would lead South Carolina to the national title. The Gamecocks finished 4-7. In his first trip to Death Valley -- a 24-13 South Carolina victory in 1992 -- Taneyhill celebrated a key touchdown by making believe he was signing his name on the hallowed Tiger Paw emblem in the center of the field. Clemson fans considered this a scurrilous act.
Since then Taneyhill has cut his hair and toned down his act -- generally. In Tiger territory, though, he regressed, stomping around on the Tiger Paw and wiping his feet on it after the game ended. Again, Clemson fans were not amused. Later, Taneyhill -- who completed 14 of 25 passes for 226 yards and had two interceptions -- said of the Tigers, "Once you get on the board, their fans are dead." Then he added, "This is the most fun I've had since two years ago at this same point." Against Clemson two years ago he had 296 yards and two TD passes in his signature effort.
It is hard to fathom a more miserable day for Clemson. The offense got the ball 13 times. Nine of those possessions ended with punts, and two ended with interceptions. One ended with a touchdown: Late in the second quarter Greene completed a 22-yard pass to flanker Marcus Hinton that set up a 15-yard run through the right side of the line by fullback Raymond Priester for the score. During Clemson's 13th possession, the game ended.
But give the Tigers this: They lost with class. "They were the better team today," said Priester. And as West looked over the wreckage, he said, "They got the job done, and we didn't."
Issue date: November 28, 1994