Clowney shook off a stomach virus earlier in the week — and some sluggish play during the game — to help South Carolina’s defense hold North Carolina to its lowest point total under coach Larry Fedora in a 27-10 victory to open the season Thursday night.
“Here I am back in front again, ready for all these questions about conditioning,” Clowney said. “Let’s go.”
Mike Davis ran 75 yards for a touchdown while Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson each threw long scoring passes to put the Gamecocks in front. Clowney and company made it all stand up.
“Hats off to my defense,” Clowney said. “As long as we get the win, that’s all that matters to me.”
Steve Spurrier was disappointed at his team’s conditioning on defense, including Clowney.
“Did you watch what I was watching?” he said when asked about Clowney. “No, I don’t have to say it. You write what you see. We’ll try and work on our conditioning for the entire team.”
Clowney did not have a sack and finished with three first-half tackles. The Tar Heels’ fast-paced offense wore him down and forced him to the sideline for several pit stops, yet he and the defense mostly hemmed in North Carolina. Shaw and Thompson put South Carolina up 17-0 in the opening quarter.
Shaw found Shaq Roland for a 65-yard touchdown on the game’s third play. Thompson threw a 29-yard TD to Kane Whitehurst later in the quarter.
The game was delayed with 8:20 left when lightning closed in on the stadium. Fans filed out quickly and hit their cars as heavy rain and thunder pelted the field for about an hour.
It’s been a steady stream of chatter about all things Clowney the past eight months, since he knocked the helmet off a Michigan runner in the Outback Bowl. Should he sit out the year and protect his draft status as next year’s No. 1 pick? How much insurance should he take out? (He has $5 million worth.) Can he become the first defense-only player to win the Heisman Trophy?
If he makes it to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation in December, he likely won’t have this game on his highlight reel.
“Everybody always expects a lot from JD. He expects a lot from himself,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “I told him he might have to watch what he’s eating if his energy’s down. We have to make sure we can play more than three, four, five plays at a time.”
Clowney laughed off the expectations and promised things would improve.
“First game of the season,” he said. “It’s going to get better. Week after week, it’s going to get better and better.”
North Carolina continually played away from Clowney’s side with short passes and quick runs. When the Tar Heels did come his way, left tackle James Hurst — an all-ACC player with NFL hopes of his own — did a solid job keeping No. 7 in check.
Clowney didn’t agree, saying it was more North Carolina’s tempo than Hurst’s blocking that got to him. “I wasn’t really impressed like I was against the guy from Michigan,” Clowney said, referring to Wolverines’ Taylor Lewan.
Right before halftime, Clowney appeared to be breathing heavy in the 90-degree heat and humidity.
There was a scary moment after play resumed when Clowney was cut from behind by backup offensive lineman Kiaro Holts, who was called for clipping.
Davis finished with 115 yards on 12 carries. Shaw was 11 for 19 passing for 149 yards and his touchdown.
The Gamecocks looked like they might give their defense a break with a 17-point first quarter that was their biggest production in an opening-game quarter since 1996’s 33-14 win over Central Florida.
The Gamecocks outgained North Carolina 203 yards to 35 in the opening quarter. The Tar Heels settled down a bit after that and closed to 17-7 on Renner’s 4-yard TD pass to Quinshad Davis.
North Carolina, though, hurt itself several times. After the defense forced a three-and-out, T.J. Thorpe muffed the punt at midfield to keep South Carolina’s drive going.
Elliott Fry added field goals of 39 and 26 yards in his first game at South Carolina.
Spurrier has said all summer that South Carolina is more than just Clowney. The Gamecocks defense certainly was, holding North Carolina’s high-speed attack to 121 yards in the first 30 minutes. The Tar Heels averaged more than 40 points and 485 yards a game last year.
North Carolina opened the second half with a 17-play, 7-minute drive that ended with a field goal to cut the lead to 20-10. Then Davis, the younger brother of ex-Clemson 1,000-yard rusher James Davis, burst through the line on South Carolina’s next snap and broke out for his long touchdown run.
The Tar Heels couldn’t make anything happen after that.
Renner and the Tar Heels drove to South Carolina’s 2 in the final two minutes, but could not score. Renner was stopped a yard short of the end zone by defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles.
Renner ended 26 of 43 with 194 yards. The Tar Heels finished with 293 yards.
Fedora wasn’t sure why his offense stalled.
“We’re in year two. I wish we were farther along than we are, but we’re not,” he said. “That was a good measuring stick for us. I didn’t look at tonight and say, `We’re so far away we’re not going to make it.’ I don’t think we’re that far away.”
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