The Palmetto Bowl has been out of the question for eight years. Well, seven years plus ten games. Ever since Clemson threw the proverbial rooster behind an experienced defense and young core playmaker off her back in another midday game in Death Valley in late November in 2014, a fault line between Clemson and Columbia has become an impassable rift; the Tigers rose to become a title-winning powerhouse with that core, while the Gamecocks floundered in Steve Spurrier’s wake.
In the seven years since plus the first ten games of this season, nobody’s expectations have really (read: rationally) been any different. Clemson recovered modestly but effectively enough from a modest year in 2021 while the Gamecocks were at least a year away from competing with the odd elite team on their schedule. South Carolina won cathartic games against Kentucky and Texas A&M – two teams that offer a real litmus test – but for the most part wasn’t as good as their records at the time indicated. In fact, Missouri and Florida overran them, and the results were in line with expectations.
Then came the eleventh game.
What on earth happened in Colombia last weekend? An offense ruled out against Florida two weeks ago — who then promptly lost to VANDERBILT — blew up out of nowhere for 9 touchdowns at No. 5.
Many have rightly questioned Tennessee’s defense this season, but Saturday’s result was more than a poor defense. The Gamecock offense played at a level not seen in years, so overwhelmingly dominant that one game could be enough to save coordinator Marcus Satterfield’s job.
Before the Tennessee game, I expected to focus on the Gamecock defense and how to attack it so Clemson can quickly get to the 20 or so points needed to complete that game. I didn’t even want to discuss her insult because honestly I felt it would have been petty and condescending and I’d like to think I’ve outgrown most of the obnoxious traits I’ve developed while using the funds – and went through high school in Northeast Columbia (I will, of course, return to my childish form the day Clemson loses a Palmetto Bowl).
But to Tennessee? It’s impossible to ignore what Spencer Rattler, Jaheim Bell and Atwane Wells seem to have done to Tennessee without breaking a sweat. We’ll discuss what worked, what works (and especially doesn’t) against an ultimately dominant Clemson defense, and most importantly, if last weekend’s performance shows one real Chance for South Carolina to pull off an upset.
It’s difficult to dive right into the Gamecocks’ offensive explosion against Tennessee without first trying to outline their identity and how great their performance in Tennessee really was.
But there really was no identity. In Rattler, they provide an elite 7v7 camp QB with a great arm and quick release, but little of what I call pocket bravery or patience to progress into anything other than a clean pocket and two attack simple reads. He can be incredibly good when there’s no pressure, but once you come to him and he remembers it; his eyes drop and from there he either checks down or throws unwise prayer balls.
Their best player has long been Marshawn Lloyd, in my opinion, but he’s been getting injured more often, and Satterfield has relied more on wildcat Dak Joyner, moving tight end Bell to the backfield to try and do everything he could from behind an offensive line no one has moved to produce.
So Satterfield was all over the map, bouncing between Air Attack, Power Run, RPO, Wildcat, Vertical Passing, and Zone Read concepts and formations at seemingly random but entirely predictable times. Yet what seemed desperation — Bell weighs over 230 pounds and is believed to be the only hope of churning out yards without Lloyd behind an objectively terrible (2.38 line yards, 108th in the nation) run-blocking line — appeared just a week ago overnight as Genie Bell was an absolute menace on the floor and in the apartments. Without a significant rush on Tennessee Pass, Rattler finally looked exactly like the 5-stars they were hoping for.
The U-turn between Florida and Tennessee defies belief even now. But looking back at the Florida game, I quickly remembered why so many of their fans want Satterfield out. They’re severely hampered by offensive line push, Lloyd’s injuries, and Rattler’s slow development, but the first hint of disaster in Florida had nothing to do with it:
Satterfield called a PA counter with a deep post, probably my favorite deep shot against man coverage. Given that you’ve had a tight end on the running back so far, there’s nothing wrong with early deep shots and designed pocket moves in the game plan.
But the lockdown scheme was off the mark from the start, with a tight end to blame for the defensive end. The pulling guard needs to go outside and help but was caught inside expecting an irrelevant green dog blitz. This isn’t about play-calling; It’s about intrigue and Rattler’s panic.
And yet the same concept that would set Tennessee ablaze a week later was already Satterfield’s goal: a level dagger concept in which the outer receiver executes a dig and the inner receiver picks up the suture or pushes a deep post:
A dig is the ideal cover 4 and cover 2 beater if the QB has enough time to hit it and with the seam (or post against a single high safety) in it to pull the safeties back, an expected throw can easily Linebackers fit behind. With Florida not bringing or getting pressure upside, Rattler can anticipate the easy read without looking at the rush.
This is where Rattler thrived and why the pressure against SC has been so brutal this season; Reach him once and his game will unravel. Florida has given him enough, Tennessee not at all.
With all night under his belt, Satterfield’s men’s coverage hitters were incredibly easy for Rattler. Mesh, daggers and Hi-Los all worked to ensure Rattler built confidence, Tennessee couldn’t reach him and defenders were unable to keep up with the man. or pulled out of position as they switched to Softcover 3 and Cover 4 to try and stop the bleeding.
Above is another dagger concept with a man-smashing net underneath, against Tennessee in cover 3. A trench is a slow-developing route that takes about three seconds for the outside receiver to get behind a hook zone defender, and Rattler had it. This was the whole night boiled down to a single play: Satterfield had man and zone hitters on the same play, and Rattler rose with confidence as he lacked the pressure and success was fittingly snowballing. Tennessee let him play his game and he tore them to shreds.
3rd & 20 just three games later, Satterfield went back to the well. Dagger concept against cover 4. Light print, good pocket feel, easy to read on the excavation route:
So what was the difference between Florida and Tennessee? An oversimplification perhaps, but the pressure rattles Rattler. Needless to say, this bodes well for Clemson, but it’s no longer the safe playground we assumed for the first ten games of this year.
Although I also don’t think Rattler’s Tennessee performance is entirely reproducible. Rattler is better against man coverage, and I certainly like SC’s receivers better than Clemson’s, but Clemson attacks the line of scrimmage and mostly zone. Get to Rattler early and force him to return to his Hero Ball antics.
Bell, Joyner and especially Lloyd give SC a real threat on the floor despite poor line play, but it’s fair to say Clemson fixed the run fit issues at this point after Barrett traded Carter and Trenton Simpson at WILL and have SAM. Carter was elite regardless of his position and Simpson is now back in space where he does most of the damage. Jeremiah Trotter Jr. plays MIKE at a level we haven’t seen in ages. With the disparity in line play between Clemson DL and SC OL, that side of the ball is heavily in Clemson’s favor unless lightning hits Rattler twice or Lloyd makes yards from contact.
The Gamecock defense skews in the opposite direction compared to their offense, and a similarly terrible line-yardage statistic tracks their line of scrimmage on that side of the ball (2.98 line-yards surrendered, 121st in the nation). It’s been a broken record here for a long time, but run the ball and win.
There are, of course, talented plays in this Gamecock defense. Zacch Pickens and Jordan Burch were 5-stars that Clemson wanted. But both have mostly underperformed relative to their ranks, and the best matchup for their defense comes (surprise, surprise!) at cornerback against the Clemson receivers.
Clemson has been very poor against man coverage this year and the Gamecocks have three solid corners that we can expect to win wide most of the time. Nickel Cam Smith stands out the most for me, and it’s crucial that Clemson engage in the run with Smith and her vulnerable first-collars on the field. Not just because Clemson is best there, but also because second-level run defense was a real weakness.
Irrationally speaking, I worry that South Carolina is on fire and that Rattler will pick up where he left off against Tennessee. I’m concerned that Clemson will have two or more turnovers in the fifth game in a row. I worry that Brandon Streeter will stay in his stubborn love with 50+% RPO calls and have the defense DJ dictate that he must pull a handover of Clemson’s best weapons and throw an unblocked bubble screen. Whenever Clemson has problems, Streeter laments that he doesn’t run the ball enough. Too many RPOs is the reason.
But the point of this column is to always focus on the rational insights from my own eyes, ignoring the fear and “what ifs” borne by last week’s Gamecock explosion. Talent, plans, and nearly all matchups favor Clemson despite this newfound threat. There’s no good reason to expect a surprise.
The formula for a Clemson win hasn’t changed and is disarmingly simple. Get behind Rattler early and emphasize Gamecock Gap integrity with Shipley and Mafah. Clemson is more than equipped for this. When and by how much Clemson pulls away is very debatable (when not?!), but the ultimate outcome remains likely.