COLUMBIA -- Dear Mark Buchholz,
You da man.
Signed, Jad Dean.
Buchholz drilled a 35-yard field goal as time expired Saturday and redeemed a year's worth of frustration, lifting Clemson to a wild 23-21 win over South Carolina in the annual rivalry battle. The Tigers took advantage of USC mistakes to post an early lead, frittered it away with a few too many of their own but made enough plays when it counted and walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium a winner, one year after Dean's shanked field goal at Clemson delivered USC a 31-28 win.
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Buchholz had already missed two field goals but came up big when he had to. The Tigers' offense got him a spot in the middle of the field after a frantic drive and the junior booted it right down the middle, denying the Gamecocks yet another consecutive win over their bitter upstate rivals.
USC has not beaten Clemson in consecutive seasons since a three-game winning streak from 1968-70. The Gamecocks will have to keep waiting for at least 39 years now, assuming they can win next year.
The Tigers may have accomplished something more relishing -- keeping the Gamecocks home for the holidays.
With five straight losses to end the year and a 6-6 record, USC is not assured of going to a bowl game, although it's bowl-eligible. Decisions will be made after the conference championship games next week, but this much is certain.
Clemson is 9-3 and will play in a large bowl game with a chance for its first 10-win season since 1990. USC is left hoping for some help just to play in a bowl game and wondering just what wrecked a season that began 6-1 and had the Gamecocks ranked sixth in the country.
There's a lot of answers to the question, but the main ones are the same why USC lost Saturday. USC gave away points in the first quarter, couldn't make a defensive stop when it really had to and gave away one to many big plays.
All USC had to do was keep picking up first downs. The Gamecocks didn't have to score -- with a 21-20 lead and only 5:01 to play, all they had to do was keep the ball out of Clemson's defensive hands and play their most precise 301 seconds of the season.
They did neither.
USC gave the ball to Cory Boyd five straight times and only got one first down, having to punt with 2:09 left. The Gamecocks' defense, which had contained runners James Davis and C.J. Spiller relatively well all night, just had to come up with one last stop.
But Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper started exploiting USC's battered secondary, taking advantage of an obvious matchup problem. Primary receiver Aaron Kelly, a 6-foot-5 gazelle, had 5-8 freshman Addison Williams covering him all night and Harper finally decided to use it.
Following a sack that set up second-and-17 from the Tigers' 48-yard-line, Harper hit Kelly for a 14-yard slant. Needing 4 yards for a win-saving first down, Harper found Kelly again for 12 yards.
The height differential worked a third straight time, Kelly hauling in an 18-yard catch-and-run to set up shop at the Gamecocks' 21. Harper spiked the ball, kept once to get in the middle of the field and the Tigers summoned Buchholz.
The big junior, in his first year of varsity football, etched his name into the rivalry book. His kick sailed true through the uprights and the mostly garnet-and-black-clad section of the end zone headed home in dejected silence, while their orange-and-purple brethren stormed the field.