TAMPA — The lead would still change three more times, but the play that might be most remembered from Tuesday’s Outback Bowl came with eight minutes to play, immediately after Michigan converted a fake punt on a controversial call for a first down with a one-point lead.
South Carolina’s All-America defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, destroyed running back Vincent Smith with a hit that knocked Smith’s helmet off and forced a fumble that Clowney picked up one-handed for the recovery. “It was like two cars hitting, I promise you the hardest hit I’ve seen in my coaching career,” Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said.
On the next play South Carolina went deep, with quarterback Connor Shaw connecting with receiver Ace Sanders for his third touchdown and a 27-22 lead. The Gamecocks went on to win 33-28, but even in a game where the winning touchdown was scored with 11 seconds left, there was more talk about Clowney’s hit.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, asked if Clowney comes up with plays like that in practice, said he could, but he doesn’t. “We have a rule: Don’t clobber teammates,” Spurrier said. “He’s got that one little slip move, and they get nothing but air when they go at him.”
South Carolina was motivated by what Spurrier called a “questionable” spot and ruling for a first down on a Michigan fake punt from its 37, upheld after a challenge. On the sideline, Clowney told his defensive teammates: “We have to step up. We can’t leave it in the refs’ hands anymore. We have to take over.”
He did, with perhaps the most incredible play in a career that could lead to him being the top pick in the NFL draft in 2014. The play was upheld upon review, as were all three plays in the game-changing sequence.
“I said it’s going to be open all day if they keep doing that zone blocking, Clowney said. “I’m going to go inside and kill him one time.”
After the turnover, Clowney said he wasn’t surprised to see Spurrier go for the end zone right away, remembering one field goal had been blocked and another missed and also knowing Spurrier’s personality.
“I told the guys on the sideline, ‘They’re not going to score a field goal. They’re going to score a touchdown,’ ” Clowney said. “They [did], and everybody’s looking at me: ‘How do you know all this about football?’ I was like, ‘Hey, I’m out here praying with y’all.’ I knew he’s going for it all. That’s how he is.”