COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney smiled at reporters late Thursday night and quickly got one step ahead of them, just as he has so many offensive linemen in his career: “You can ask all the questions about conditioning,” he said. “Let’s get to it.”
Clowney, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was not his Heisman hopeful self in the Gamecocks’ 27-10 win over North Carolina. He was sucking wind. He didn’t get one sack. He cramped up.
Clowney said he had a stomach virus the night before, and it was still ailing him the morning of the season opener. His pregame meal consisted of bananas and a few grapes, and it didn’t help that UNC’s up-tempo spread offense ran 79 plays to South Carolina’s 59.
So yes, Clowney was “pretty tired” -- but it didn’t matter, because South Carolina found other ways to win.
For all of the hype surrounding South Carolina’s bullish defensive line, it was the physical performance of the Gamecocks’ offensive line coupled with a poor performance from UNC’s defense that was the difference in the game. South Carolina was bigger and better up front, further padding the theory that the SEC recruits a different caliber of linemen than any other conference. The Gamecocks knew this advantage going in -- and used it to establish a running game led by rookie Mike Davis, who was making his first career start.
“We knew that coming in, watching film,” quarterback Connor Shaw said. “We were going to try to run the ball a lot. We struggled a little bit here and there on five-man protection but other than that our offensive line played really well.”
Well enough for Davis to finish with 115 yards, the first 100-yard game of his career. South Carolina’s offensive linemen averaged 322.4 pounds compared to UNC’s 307. The gap up front was noticeable. South Carolina averaged 6.9 yards per play, six yards per carry, and finished with 228 rushing yards. The Gamecocks had all of the momentum early, as they outgained North Carolina 203 yards to 35 in the opening quarter.
“They’re bigger than we are,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “I’d have to go back and look at the film and see if we were getting mashed. I want to give the running back a lot of credit. That guy broke a lot of tackles. Mike Davis, he did a really nice job. We have to do a better job of tackling.”
North Carolina gave up too many big plays -- including a 75-yard touchdown run by Davis in the third quarter, and a 65-yard touchdown pass to Shaq Roland just 1:19 into the season. Quarterback Dylan Thomas came in for Shaw and on his first play of the game threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Kane Whitehurst. Meanwhile, the offense did a respectable job keeping Clowney at bay. Offensive tackle James Hurst was lined up against Clowney the most, but Clowney was also moved all over the field. Fedora said the game plan was to get rid of the ball quickly and use short passes.
“We felt like if we could move the chains and execute, it would tire him out,” Fedora said. “If you go back and look, there were times he was pretty tired out there. He can make plays when he wants to make plays. He’s definitely a hoss, there’s no doubt about it. He’s a great player, but I didn’t feel like he was a huge factor in the game, actually. There were other guys I thought made some plays. I thought James Hurst did a pretty nice job against him.”
It was a disappointing start for the ACC, which opens the season with three games against SEC opponents. North Carolina seemed overmatched from the start, even though it was doing a good job of keeping Renner on his feet. He was sacked only one time all night, but South Carolina was simply the deeper, more talented team. The fact that Clowney had an off-night and South Carolina’s defense still held UNC to its lowest point total under Fedora was further proof that the Gamecocks are more than just Clowney.
UNC averaged 40 points 485 yards a game last year. But it sputtered and stuttered in the red zone, scoring just one touchdown in three trips. Clowney had a little something to do with that. Even though he wasn’t full speed, he was still on the heels of UNC quarterback Bryn Renner.
“I was pretty tired, but you have to play through that,” Clowney said. “I was still coming off the ball and that’s what matters. I might be bent over sometimes but when that ball snaps, I was getting off. It’s just one of those games, you have to push yourself.”
They did. And North Carolina didn’t have enough to push back.