Ahead of Clemson Football’s matchup with South Carolina on Saturday, Justin Robertson, sports editor of The Tiger, spoke with Lawson Murrell, sports editor of South Carolina student newspaper The Daily Gamecock.
Justin Robertson (JR): What does the rivalry between the two schools mean for the South Carolina student body?
Lawson Murrell (LM): It’s so hard to put into words, honestly. I grew up in South Carolina – I’ve been there my whole life – and there really is bad blood, that’s true. But I think it’s a really healthy rivalry overall. I mean, the blood donation and all the other things that come with it, the whole Palmetto series in all the different sports, I’ve seen coaches get hired and fired for winning or losing the Carolina Clemson rivalry game. So it really is a big thing in the state and almost a benchmark for any coach who will come through once they get their first win. It’s always very exciting and makes for good football. I can’t say enough. It’s my favorite game of the year.
JR: What’s South Carolina’s greatest strength that Clemson might struggle with?
LM: I think throughout the year the special teams have definitely been the team’s greatest strength. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. The offensive was really up and down. The defense is still growing into its role with many injuries and setbacks. But I think in ESPN’s special teams efficiency category, South Carolina is first in the country.
So you know, Kai Kröger, the punter, he has one of the best punting averages. He only poked once last weekend but he usually gets more action. We’ve seen a few kickoffs and punts being taken back for touchdowns this year. Josh Vann is one of the leading returnees in the SEC. Mitch Jeter, the field goal kicker, he’s perfect. He didn’t miss this season. Overall, Pete Lembo is really letting this unit run at full steam. And we saw it through the two blocked kicks earlier in the season against Texas A&M. This unit is definitely a difference maker for South Carolina.
JR: What is one of the Gamecocks weaknesses that Clemson can exploit?
LM: I think it’s probably the run defense. Running defense has been pretty patchy this year. Those defensive injuries I mentioned earlier have come back to bite the gamecocks. They don’t have a lot of depth on defense. And obviously Will Shipley is very talented. I think they will have a lot of trouble keeping him at bay this weekend.
JR: Which star players should Clemson fans watch out for on Saturday?
LM: Although it’s been a year of ups and downs for him, Spencer Rattler showed who he is and what he can do against Tennessee. I think if (Marcus) Satterfield and Beamer keep the offense open and somehow let him come after and air the ball, (Rattler) will definitely be a difference in the game. And Antwane Wells Jr., the transfer wide receiver, came in this season and is the lead wide receiver for South Carolina and always impresses.
Then on the other side of the ball I would say that defender Nick Emmanwori is a true newcomer. He was actually ejected for a aimed call in the second quarter of the Tennessee game. But he’s the leading solo tackler, not only on the team but in the SEC this season. A really big impact there right out of high school.
JR: After a top-five win over Tennessee last week, how do you think the Gamecocks will stay composed and focused as they prepare for Clemson?
LM: I think it’s going to be a particularly tricky week. After being ranked earlier this year, the team delivered something of a complete goose egg next week against Missouri. The offense never got going, and the defense – they looked like the Tennessee defense out there.
But I think it’s going to be tough for Beamer because he’s going to have some players who’ve got it all wrapped up. “If we can beat Tennessee like that, Clemson won’t be a problem.” And then there will be guys on the other side of the spectrum who think, “Well, maybe that was a fluke. Maybe we don’t have what it takes to go to Death Valley.” So it’s going to be a big undertaking for Beamer to keep everyone on track. But after that performance I think there’s a lot to build on. And I think the team as a whole will be confident in what they can do in Saturday’s game.
JR: Who do you think will win and why?
LM: I think Clemson will win at home. They’ve been hearing all season that they’re not what they’ve been for the past few years. This is the game of the season. So Dabo knows as well as anyone that he has to win this one. But I think it’s going to be tight. I don’t think it will be like last year. I think Clemson wins 35-31.