Clemson Wins Heartbreaker 23-21

Clemson Wins Heartbreaker 23-21

The Gamecocks' season slipped away weeks ago, and on a cold night at Williams-Brice Stadium, redemption slipped away too. The Gamecocks took a 21-20 lead, but could not hold on, and the Tigers got some redemption of their own, kicking a 35 yard field goal as time expired to win 23-21.

Mark Buchholz, who missed a game-tying 54-yard field goal as time expired last week against Boston College, and missed two more field goals this week, redeemed himself with the game winner against Carolina. He finished off a wild fourth quarter that saw Carolina finally take its first lead of the game after seeming to be driving for the go-ahead score three times. When it mattered most, though, Carolina continued its season long inability to keep its offense on the field.

"That was a game we should have won," Steve Spurrier said afterward. "We had two punts blocked and got pushed around a lot, but we came back and made some plays here and there to get the lead, but we couldn't stop 3rd and 18, and they went down and scored and won the game."

The start of the game was all too familiar for the Gamecocks, as it was the second straight game in which Carolina had a turnover on its first play and a blocked punt on its second drive. On the first play of the game, Blake Mitchell was pressured into a hurried throw to Kenny McKinley, which was intercepted. Carolina's defense stiffened, and held Clemson to a field goal. On the next drive, Carolina went three and out and Nelson Faerber came in untouched to block Ryan Succop's punt. Clemson returned the block for a touchdown.

"They came up the middle on two of them," said Spurrier. "I think the upback let the guy come inside, and one of our guys didn't block down inside. It was strange. That hadn't happened to us all year."

Spurrier's offense finally gathered itself after once again spotting the opponents an early lead. Mitchell found Cory Boyd in the flat for a 39 yard gain, and then hit McKinley in the corner of the end zone for a 20 yard TD. It was the start of a record-setting night for McKinley, who finished with 8 catches for 125 yards and 2 touchdowns. The performance gave him 77 catches on the year, breaking Sterling Sharpe's record for single season receptions (74).

"Kenny McKinley had another outstanding game," said Spurrier.

After the game, McKinley again stated his intention to return for his senior season with the Gamecocks. "I am coming back," he said.

The teams traded punts, and then Clemson put together a scoring drive. The key play on the drive came when C.J. Spiller was hit late out of bounds by Melvin Ingram. The personal foul eventually set up a touchdown strike from Cullen Harper to Faerber. Clemson had a chance to add to the lead right before halftime, but Buchholz missed a 35 yard field goal.

Clemson punted to start the second half, and Carolina went three and out. Succop's punt was blocked for the second time, and Clemson fell on the ball at the 22. Tyrone Nix's defense, which was on the field for 85 plays and 38:37 (compared to 52 plays and 21:23 for the Carolina offense), was up to the challenge. On 2nd and goal, Harper rolled right and forced a pass into the end zone. Emanuel Cook, who led the Gamecocks with 9 tackles, intercepted the pass in the end zone and returned it to the 34 yard line. Four plays later, Mitchell hit McKinley on a deep post for a 40 yard touchdown, and the momentum had swung.

"I thought Blake played pretty well," Spurrier said.

Clemson tried to regain the momentum with a 13 play, 69-yard drive. However, the drive stalled at the 11 yard line and the Tigers had to settle for a field goal and a 6 point lead with 2:25 left in the third quarter. At that point, the game appeared ready for the taking for Carolina.

Mitchell quickly drove the Gamecocks down the field and on 2nd and 10 from the 39, hit Dion Lecorn on a slant. Lecorn, who had 5 catches for 65 yards and a touchdown, brought the crowd to its feet several times as he broke tackles after the catch. This time he would have been better served if he had gone down, as he spun out of one tackle, but exposed the ball. Phillip Merling stripped the ball, and Marcus Gilchrist fell on the fumble, ending Carolina's first try at the go ahead drive.

The defense forced another punt, but on the ensuing possession, Mitchell was hit from behind as he threw, and the ball popped into the air and into the arms of defensive tackle Dorrell Scott, who caught his first career interception. With the ball on the Carolina 32, the Gamecocks again stiffened, forcing a three and out and a field goal attempt. Buchholz's 45-yard attempt went wide again, setting up Carolina's third try at the go ahead score.

This time, Mitchell capitalized. Clemson blitzed, and Mitchell threw a screen to McKinley, who ran the ball 35 yards down to the 7 yard line. Spurrier spread out Clemson with five receivers, and Mitchell drilled a pass to an open Lecorn. Succop hit the Pat to give the Gamecocks their first lead, 21-20, with 9:00 left in the game.

"We played our hearts out," Mitchell said. "We gave all we had. We were down early and the defense stepped up and helped. We were fortunate enough to make plays and score touchdowns."

As was the case for most of the second half, Clemson was unable to put together a drive. Eric Norwood, Darian Stewart, and Cook forced the Tigers into a punt, and Carolina had the ball with the lead and 5:01 left on the clock. On the first play, Cory Boyd rushed left off tackle for 16 yards, and for a moment it looked like the Gamecocks would finally be able to make time of possession work in their favor. However, Boyd gained just 7 yards on his next three carries, forcing the Gamecocks to give the ball back with 2:09 left.

"We just thought we might could run for four yards," Spurrier explained. "That was dumb on my part, because we hadn't run for four yards hardly all night. They just stopped us. We don't get a lot of movement."

Clemson got the ball on its own 22, and hit Aaron Kelly for 26 yards on the first play. Norwood got a sack and tackle for loss on the next two plays, setting up 3rd and 18. Harper audibled at the line, and threw to Kelly for 14 yards, setting up 4th and 4. After Carlos Thomas left the game midway through the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks were without both starting cornerbacks (Captain Munnerlyn is out for the year with a foot injury). Clemson responded by going with five wide receivers and Harper under center. Kelly ran a slant and Harper threw him a strike for 12 yards to keep the drive alive. On the next play, Addison Williams slipped in coverage and Kelly hauled in an 18 yard slant. Clemson ran the clock down to 3 seconds and set up Buchholz's game winning field goal.

"Our punt coverage was excellent," said Spurrier. "We had a couple of good first and second downs there, had a sack and so forth, but unfortunately, on 3rd and 18 they hit a 12-13 yarder and converted on fourth. We weren't quite good enough to stop them."

The Gamecocks are now 6-6, and will likely require some help if they want to make it to a bowl game. 6-6 teams are eligible for a bowl, but cannot be selected ahead of a 7-5 team. Furthermore, the SEC has more bowl eligible teams than bowl affiliations, so Carolina is likely counting on another conference, probably the Pac-10, to not fulfill its obligations. After the game, Spurrier said he does not know if Carolina will play in a bowl game.

"We are what we are: we're 6-6," he said. "There may be a way we can get a bowl bid."

Notes:

- McKinley extended his streak of consecutive games with a catch to 33, and now has 968 yards on the season, the 4th highest single season total ever. He is also tied with Jermale Kelly for the fourth most career receptions.

- For Clemson, Kelly also set a record for single-season receptions, with 84. Rod Gardner had the old record, with 80.

- Clemson had not blocked a punt since 2004, and had not returned a blocked punt for a touchdown since 1981.

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