Streak stoppers! South Carolina upends No. 8 Clemson to snap skid against rival

Joshua Boucher/jboucher@thestate.com

South Carolina is on a historic two-game tear.

Clemson is all but out of the College Football Playoff.

And coach Shane Beamer’s Gamecocks, after seven long seasons without them, have finally reclaimed those sweet, sweet, year-long bragging rights that come attached to one of college football’s greatest rivalries.

Clemson receiver Antonio Williams fumbled the ball on a punt return with two minutes left and South Carolina ran out the clock to secure a 31-30 instant classic win over Clemson on Saturday afternoon in Memorial Stadium

It’s the Gamecocks’ first win against the Tigers since 2013.

This was the 119th all-time matchup between the longtime rivals, and early on it felt like déjà vu. In 2021, Clemson shut out USC behind a strong defense and an even stronger rushing attack.

The Tigers followed a similar script on Saturday, with linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. picking off Rattler and returning it 35 yards for the game’s opening touchdown and Uiagalelei scoring a short rushing touchdown on Clemson’s next possession.

The Tigers weren’t without fault in the first quarter – USC cornerback Darius Rush dropped a sure pick six on Uiagalelei’s second attempt of the day – but after 15 minutes they led 14-0. That score was well in line with their recent dominance against the Gamecocks.

Then things got weird.

Trailing by two touchdowns, Rattler found receiver Antwane Wells Jr. in the back of the end zone on fourth and goal to give USC life (14-7). Then, on the most controversial play of the day, referees whistled a potential South Carolina defensive touchdown dead and after a review confirmed that Uiagalelei had thrown a forward pass to running back Phil Mafah rather than a backward pass (which USC thought it had recovered).

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Clemson went up 16-7 after defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro sacked Rattler in the end zone only to fumble the ensuing free kick after a hidden ball trick play. Rattler responded with a four-yard rushing touchdown (16-14), and Uiagalelei found receiver Antonio Williams wide open in the end zone on the next possession (23-14).

Then South Carolina went for it on fourth and 1 from its own 34-yard line and got down to Clemson’s one-yard line after a 65-yard play-action pass from Rattler to running back Juju McDowell … only for Clemson safety R.J. Mickens to pick off Rattler two plays later.

That end zone interception – as well as a Herculean effort by Clemson safety Andrew Mukuba to chase down McDowell after getting burnt on the play – loomed large as Clemson entered the half with a 23-14 lead.

But South Carolina refused to go away in the third quarter. The Gamecocks used a 37-yard punt return by Ahmarean Brown to set up a short Jaheim Bell rushing touchdown and cut their deficit to 23-21. Then, trailing 30-21 after a Shipley touchdown, Rattler hit Wells on the money for a 72-yard score – the longest play by either team all day.

The Gamecocks flat-out dominated those 15 minutes, averaging 10.7 yards per play, and got even more momentum when Clemson safety R.J. Mickens was ejected for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Bell. (Mickens will miss the first half of Clemson’s ACC championship game against No. 17 North Carolina next week.)

South Carolina took its first lead of the game, 31-30, on a 35-yard Mitch Jeter field goal with 10:54 remaining in the fourth quarter and excelled on defense, too.

Clemson punted on four of its first five possessions in the second half and turned it over for a second time when cornerback Marcellas Dial intercepted Uiagalelei with 6:37 to go in the game.

The Tigers forced consecutive punts after the Uiagalelei interception to give their offense a chance but didn’t get a shot at a game-winning drive after Williams’ fumble with 2:05 remaining.