Clemson finished the 2023 regular season by getting its fourth straight win beating South Carolina 16-7. This win meant so much more for the Tigers than getting four straight wins though. They were able to avenge the loss to their rivals from last season. It was a loss that drastically affected the program coming into this season and determined much of the direction Dabo Swinney would decide to take for the Tigers’ future. Now a year later, they got their win back and have changed the trajectory back to an upward swing for the program. Another dominant defensive performance helped to get this win to end the regular season and begin the build to 2024.
Defense Dominates Again
All game long the Clemson defense suffocated the Gamecocks. Besides an 18-yard pass on the first play of the game, the defense gave up nothing. South Carolina’s offense totaled only 169 yards of offense in the game. The Tiger defense gave up 57 yards in the run game and did not allow Spencer Rattler to get anything going in the passing game. Coming into this game Rattler had over 3,000 passing yards and was 16th in the FBS in passing yards. In this game, he only threw for 112 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. TJ Parker was in his face all night getting himself three quarterback hurries.
It all started with two straight takeaways by Clemson’s defense, more specifically freshman defensive back Khalil Barnes. Barnes has been great for the Tigers all season long and continued his great contributions in his first Palmetto Bowl game. First was the heads-up recovery and return for a touchdown on a dropped backward pass on the second play of the game. Barnes then got an interception on the very first play of the following drive on a deep pass from Rattler.
He finished the day with four total tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery, and one touchdown. Barnes, as well as Parker, continue to be part of the many young players in the Clemson program to show why the future for the Tigers is very bright.
Offense Makes it Work
For an offense that has struggled with explosiveness and playmaking in the passing game, missing many of the top receivers on the team is not ideal. For Clemson though, this has been a common occurrence over the last couple of years. This week, Beaux Collins joined Antonio Williams, Brannon Spector, and Cole Turner on the injured reserve list. All these guys are very important to the things Clemson wants to do in the passing game. While some of those guys have been out for a while, with all of them out at the same time their absences were definitely felt.
Cade Klubnik struggled to get anything going downfield himself. He finished the day completing 15 of 27 passes for 100 yards and an interception. Once again though, the running game gave the offense a boost. While neither Will Shipley nor Phil Mafah were able to score, they were able to extend drives with some tough runs. Klubnik himself also had some good runs to keep the offense moving. Overall the Tigers had 219 rushing yards on the day. Allowing the run game to flourish to end the season has helped the Tigers be better offensively and keep the ball moving. Especially when the passing game has not worked.
How Far They’ve Come
While Clemson is still not a perfect team, they have improved in many of the areas they had some of their biggest problems. One of the biggest examples of this was in the kicking game. Clemson’s placekickers have had some issues this season making field goals. Kicker Jonathan Weitz, who was brought in for Robert Gun III who missed two field goals against Duke, had only hit one field goal from 40+ yards all season in six attempts. In this game, he made all three of his field goal attempts and each was over 40 yards.
The Tigers also won the turnover battle once again this week. Their only turnover came when Klubnik threw an interception on a deep shot to the end zone. The Tigers’ defense stood strong on the following drive to prevent any points off the turnover. The defense also got themselves two takeaways, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The turnover problem has improved, but there is still not a game this season Clemson has not given the ball up at least once.
Now the Tigers have a bowl game to look forward to for the postseason. Many are saying a possible invitation to the Holiday or Gator Bowl. Whatever game Clemson gets, it will be another important one for the program. It will be another chance to see what has improved, and what still needs to be adjusted in order for Clemson to get back in the playoff conversations next season. It will also be another game to continue the momentum they have built to end the season. One more chance to raise the Clemson stock as they begin to prepare for 2024.