South Carolina’s special teams delivered an impressive performance Saturday afternoon, helping the Gamecocks clinch the first victory over rival No. 8 Clemson in eight seasons with a 31-30 win.
The unit stifled the Tigers’ offense by pinning the team deep in its own territory and forcing key turnovers to shift the tide in the game.
“We told our guys on special teams that … there’s going to be opportunities to get down there and knock the ball out against their punt returner and against their kickoff returner,” head coach Shane Beamer said. “Great job of them straining to get downfield and causing two turnovers on special teams. That’s huge.”
Despite the Gamecocks’ overall success on offense, the team was forced to call upon junior punter Kai Kroeger seven times during the game. He demonstrated his ability to kick for both distance and accuracy.
Out of Kroeger’s seven punts — which traveled 376 yards and averaged 53.7 yards per punt — four of them traveled 50 yards or longer, and five of his punts pinned the Clemson offense inside of their own 20-yard line, giving the Tigers more distance to cover in order to score.
South Carolina’s special teams were able to get important takeaways that tilted the matchup in the Gamecocks’ favor on kicks and punts that were returned by the Tigers.
Early in the second quarter, redshirt junior tight end Traevon Kenion recovered a fumble after Clemson sophomore running back Phil Mafah attempted a lateral pass to a teammate during a kickoff return. Four plays later, junior quarterback Spencer Rattler scored on a four-yard touchdown run to shrink Clemson’s early lead to two points.
With just over two minutes remaining in the game, another special teams play helped seal the Gamecocks' victory.
Graduate tight end Nate Adkins poked the ball out of Clemson freshman wide receiver Antonio Williams’ hand during a punt return, forcing a fumble that was recovered by freshman defensive back Nick Emmanwori for South Carolina. Soon afterward, Rattler completed a 5-yard pass to junior wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. for a pivotal first down, which allowed the Gamecocks to run out the clock.
Junior kicker Mitch Jeter was also perfect on his five kicks — a 35-yard field goal and four extra points — to cap off a great all-around display led by the special teams unit.
Kroeger said the Gamecocks’ performance against Clemson showed the importance of special teams in determining the outcome of games.
“It’s definitely great to see that everyone’s now so engaged with special teams,” Kroeger said. “Obviously, that’s a big tribute to Coach Lembo and Coach Weber, but I think everyone now is realizing how much of a game changer it can be on special teams, and I’m just happy I can contribute the best I can and help us win.”
Kroeger said members of the team relied on each other to continue fighting after falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter.
“We go down early, but we rally, we weren’t down on ourselves — we just got together, and we said to each other, ‘Listen, we’re down, but that’s not going to stop us. We’re going to go out there, keep going,'” Kroeger said.
Kroeger added that he was especially proud to win this game for his teammates and Gamecock fans.
“This is unbelievable, honestly, especially for our seniors,” Kroeger said. “I’m just happy that I was able to do my part to help give them this, especially Gamecock nation.”
The South Carolina football team went 2-8 and finished the season on a six-game losing streak in 2020, Kroeger’s first season as a Gamecock. The program has grown tremendously since then, Kroeger said, and he's excited to see what it is capable of in the future after finishing the 2022 regular season with an 8-4 record.
“When I got here as a freshman, I didn’t really know exactly what a good culture or a good program looked like,” Kroeger said. “We’ve skyrocketed — not only mentally in our belief in ourselves, but physically, and our performance has shown that.”