It was ugly from the start as the South Carolina football team fell to Clemson 16-7 in its final game of the 2023 season.
The Gamecocks turned the ball over twice in its first three plays from scrimmage. These mishaps and an overall unproductive performance from the South Carolina offense allowed Clemson to jump ahead.
“That's a really deep defense. They had pressure on every single play,” senior quarterback Spencer Rattler said. “(They) had a great scheme, obviously great players, really good on the front, good linebackers, good DBs. They caused a lot of problems for us, and I'm just sad we couldn't play at a higher level.”
The first turnover came when Ratter threw a screen pass to fifth-year wide receiver Xavier Legette. The pass was ruled backward by the referees and wound up in the ground, only to be scooped up by Clemson freshman safety Khalil Barnes for the Tigers’ sole touchdown of the game.
The second turnover came in the first play of South Carolina’s next drive. Rattler heaved a deep ball to Legette but instead found the hands of Barnes, who obtained his second takeaway in the game’s first 45 seconds.
Clemson forced a turnover on downs on South Carolina's final possession. The Gamecocks forced just one turnover — an interception from sophomore defensive back Nick Emmanwori in the third quarter.
“Knew the turnover battle was going to be critical in this game. Dabo will tell you that's kind of been the story of their season and the story of our season in a lot of ways, as well,” head coach Shane Beamer said. “Two turnovers in the first three plays of the game. About the worst possible start you could have.”
South Carolina put together its only decent drive in the game after the two early giveaways. The team went downfield and capped the possession with a one-yard touchdown run from redshirt junior quarterback Luke Doty.
The Gamecocks' remaining drives after that possession resulted in nine consecutive punts followed by the turnover on downs.
“They're really good up front. We weren't good enough tonight. When we've been really good on offense, we've been able to protect the passer and throw the ball downfield, and we knew it was going to be a challenge tonight,” Beamer said “(We) tried to do everything — quick game, screens, roll out, max protect, you name it — and (we) had a hard time getting anything going.”
The offense in the first quarter accounted for more than half of the Gamecocks' 169 total yards for the game. The team went backwards in the second quarter with a net gain of negative six yards. The third quarter was not much better, as the team gained just eight yards. In the fourth, the team gained 75 yards.
The Gamecock defense put together one of its strongest performances of the year, but it was not enough to make up for the lackluster offense. South Carolina held Clemson’s offense to no touchdowns and three field goals.
“We kept putting them out there, and they kept making stops,” Beamer said. “Our defense played well enough for us to win. Like I said, when you hold the other team to three field goals, you feel like you have a great opportunity to win a game.”
Clemson was helped by graduate student kicker Jonathan Weitz, who was on target despite serious struggles on the year. He entered the contest 8-14 this season on field goal attempts. Before tonight, he never attempted more than two kicks in a game and only connected at a 100% rate twice.
Meanwhile Clemson sophomore quarterback Cade Klubnik was inefficient in the passing game, completing just 15-27 attempts for 100 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Klubnik’s ability to tuck it and run gave him a different avenue to affect the game, rushing for 52 yards on 11 attempts.
Clemson junior running backs Phil Mafah and Will Shipley took 19 and 15 carries respectively. Both players ran for 80-plus yards, with Mafah leading the way at 89 yards.
The loss snapped South Carolina's three-game winning streak. The Gamecocks now sit at 5-7 on the season and have failed to meet the six wins required to obtain bowl eligibility for the first time in the Beamer era.
The only way the Gamecocks could play in a postseason game now is if enough teams decline an invitation.
Beamer was emotional after the game while talking about the seniors who played their final game in garnet and black. He said he wishes they could continue practicing for the next month but appreciates the chances they gave him during his first appearance as a head coach.
“They stayed, which the easy thing to do is to leave. And (they) didn't just stay for one year, but they stayed two years, and then a third year, as well,” Beamer said. “Guys that came in didn't know anything about me but trusted me.”
Rattler, like Beamer, took a moment in the postgame to thank his teammates and coaches for giving him a chance to grow as a player and a leader of the team.
“Going through last year being new, wanting to show who I am, gain the trust of my teammates, I was very lucky to be voted a team captain last year and this year, as well,” Rattler said. “It's an honor to be a captain at this university, and I don't take that lightly. I'm just happy I could gain the trust of my teammates and build so many close relationships that will be close 10, 20 years down the line.”
Rattler said he has not yet made a decision in terms of his future in football but that he will be playing in the Reese's Senior Bowl with Legette. The game will take place on Feb. 3, 2024, and host a number of NFL scouts.
Beamer said he will shift his focus to off-season tasks such as recruiting, with the contact period opening on Friday, the same day as the Class A and 5A South Carolina High School League state championship games and a day before the 3A and 4A games.
“We’ve got a couple of recruits in this weekend, one on an official visit, so I'll have recruiting meetings all day tomorrow,” Beamer said. “I'll be out recruiting on Friday and around our players as much as possible this month, as well.”