Sophomore changes momentum of game after controversial call
TAMPA, Fla.— In an Outback Bowl that hinged on a handful of big plays, the man South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier called the team’s “star player” in his Monday press conference had yet to make a single play of note.
But in the fourth quarter, sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney stepped up to make the play that turned the momentum in USC’s 33-28 win.
A controversial first-down ball spot had the Michigan Wolverines driving from their own 41-yard line midway through the fourth quarter with the Gamecocks trailing 22-21. Clowney finally broke through the Michigan offensive line that had neutralized him for the majority of the game.
With a hit that junior wide receiver Ace Sanders said sounded like a “car crash” from the sideline, Clowney leveled Wolverine running back Vincent Smith, forcing a fumble that Clowney recovered at the Michigan 31-yard line.
The sophomore said he knew his big play would mean an even bigger one to follow for the USC offense.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said the Clowney hit and fumble recovery was a “huge play.” It cost his team six points on the very next play, when junior quarterback Connor Shaw hit Sanders for a touchdown that put South Carolina up 27-22.
Sophomore wide receiver Bruce Ellington, whose scoring reception sealed the Gamecock victory with 11 seconds left in the game, said he didn’t see Clowney’s hit.
“But I heard it. I was like, ‘Whoa,’ and then I saw the replay. It shocked me,” Ellington said. “I kind of jumped when I saw it.”
Having been kept quiet in the first half by Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, Clowney said he was eager to step up for his teammates.
“I said, ‘It’s going to be a big play coming up, just wait for it,’” Clowney said. “It was a matter of time. I said, ‘Guys, I’ma show up; I’m coming. Just hang in there. We gonna win this game. I’ma make a big play.’”
Big plays are something Gamecock coaches, players and fans have come to expect from the sophomore defensive end. Tuesday’s big hit and forced fumble capped off a season of highlight-reel plays that earned Clowney consensus All-American honors, making him the first Gamecock to earn unanimous first-team honors since Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers in 1980.
“Clowney’s a great guy,” Ellington said. “He does what he can do to help the team win.”
Clowney finished the Outback Bowl with four tackles, a relatively modest performance from a player who recorded seven tackles, including 4.5 sacks, against Clemson in the final game of the regular season.
Looking ahead to next season, Clowney is widely expected to be an early contender for the Heisman Trophy. Having already hinted at his intention to turn pro after next season, Clowney expects to improve in the coming months.
“I think I’m going to be a lot better than I am this year because I can work on my run stopping ... and just get stronger,” Clowney said. “So it’ll be a lot better next year. Y’all just watch and see.”