CLEMSON — Jake Bentley said earlier this week he wasn’t allowing himself to think about the past when it came to his record against Clemson. The South Carolina quarterback instead insisted he would approach this rivalry game just like he does any other game. The rest would work itself out against No. 2 Clemson, he said.
“I try to take each game by itself and not think about what-ifs and what’s going to be,” he said ahead of the 116th installment of the Clemson-South Carolina football game. “We’ve got to approach the mindset with this is the 2018 Carolina team against the 2018 Clemson team, and just go from there.”
But certainly Bentley knew before the Gamecocks’ 56-35 loss to Clemson on Saturday night that his previous performances against the Tigers were stains on his otherwise solid record. He also had to know this group of Gamecocks would need to remedy the lopsided defeats sooner rather than later if they were going to solidify their collective legacy the way they eventually want to.
Saturday — for as much as Bentley did his part and undeniably answered questions about his ability to show up in big games — was not going to be that night.
Instead, the outing belonged to Clemson, as the Tigers turned a seven-point halftime lead into a 21-point victory and picked up their fifth straight win against the Gamecocks for the first time since 1940.
Clemson has now gone undefeated in the regular season for the seventh time in program history and the Tigers’ seniors will graduate having never lost to South Carolina, despite the Gamecocks making it much closer than anyone expected early with an injury-depleted team.
“First of all I want to give credit to South Carolina, they competed their tails off. They got down four touchdowns, but they kept competing,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN. “Defensively, obviously disappointed in our passing yards, but at the end of the game this is what it’s all about, finding a way to win.”
Indeed, credit is due to Bentley for his moxie and his receivers for making some big-time plays. The Deebo Samuel-Shi Smith wideout duo was a massive problem for Clemson’s defense, which will have defensive coordinator Brent Venables frustrated for days to come.
Bentley passed for more yards against Clemson than any other South Carolina quarterback in the history of this series, racking up a career-high 510 yards and five touchdowns through the air. The Gamecocks played gutsy, even going for it on fourth and goal in the first half, and Bentley put on a clinic in terms of how to torch the Tigers on the deep ball, accounting for all but 90 of the Gamecocks’ 600 total yards of offense.
But Clemson’s offense had its way against a decimated South Carolina defense in both the passing and the running game and Clemson’s defense had two goal-line stands that mattered despite a wobbly night from the secondary.
Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, playing in his first rivalry game of his college career, hung in with Bentley and accomplished the same feat on his side as Bentley did on his. With a career-high 393 yards, along with a touchdown, Lawrence has now thrown for more yards in a single game against the Gamecocks than any other Clemson quarterback before him — including Deshaun Watson.
“Came here to win the game, we didn’t get the job done,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “We’re a little short on defense. At one point, I think we had six true freshmen on the field.”
Clemson’s running backs also saw Adam Choice score three times, Travis Etienne score twice and Tavien Feaster score once as the Tigers racked up 351 yards on the ground. Etienne paved the way with 150 yards on 28 carries and dominated the run game, an area in which the Gamecocks struggled. South Carolina finished the night with just 90 rushing yards, including iminus-20 from Bentley as Clemson’s defensive line harassed him all night.
As both teams move forward with their respective seasons, everything is still in front of Clemson. The Tigers are one win away from their fourth straight College Football Playoff bid as they gear up to play Pittsburgh in what should be a one-sided ACC Championship matchup next week in Charlotte.
The Gamecocks host Akron in Columbia in a hurricane makeup game and are poised to have a seven-win season under Muschamp to make them bowl eligible once again.
“This is a state championship. The goal at the beginning of the day was to win this game. Next week, it’s the ACC championship, but we’re going to enjoy this one tonight,” Swinney said. “There’s not many 12-0 teams, ever, and this is one of them.”
Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor