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In general for the Clemson Tigers, what a difference a year makes. After a gut-wrenching 31-28 loss to arch-rival South Carolina on a game-ending missed field goal, a game-winning CU field goal makes for a warm winter and state bragging rights. In particular for Tigers’ Aaron Kelly and Mark Buchholz, what a difference a week makes. Kelly and Buchholz played key roles in Clemson’s continued dominance of USC on Saturday night when the Tigers rallied for a 23-21 win over the Gamecocks.
Clemson, in Columbia, is 9-1 since 1989, with Tigers’ coach Tommy Bowden 7-2 against USC, only one setback at Williams-Brice Stadium. A week prior, Kelly couldn’t grasp what appeared to be a sure touchdown pass in Clemson’s tough 20-17 Death Valley loss to Boston College for a bid to the ACC championship game. When the drive stalled, Buchholz was short on a game-tyeing 54-yard field goal to force OT. Another Saturday night opposite another feathered foe – the Gamecocks – it was a different story and a happy ending as bright as Clemson orange.
CU quarterback Cullen Harper engineered the game-winning drive, which included clutch conversions of third-and-18 and fourth-and-four snaps. Kelly had a 12-yard catch on the do-or-die fourth-down play and Harper found Kelly at the USC 16 to set the stage for Buchholz. “It’s definitely special that we had confidence to call my number at the end of the game, especially after what happened last week,” said Kelly who had nine catches for 134 yards. Kelly noted the Tigers’ defense also delivered when it had to stop the Gamecocks to get the ball back for Clemson’s victory march.
The week prior, a Boston College bomb boosted the Eagles’ victory. USC, with a ball possession third-and-four, couldn’t convert and the Tigers, with one final chance, responded. In retrospect, the Gamecocks’ final offensive series reflected its woes dating back to the second half of the North Carolina game when then 6-1 USC looked at times inept after being dominant. “Offensively if we could have stayed on the field, but we weren’t good enough to do it,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. “We didn’t make enough plays to win the game. We’re not real good, and we’re not coached real well, which is my fault.” The game came down to a special teams play and one had to know what was going to happen since 6-6 USC, suspect in special teams all season, had two punts blocked in the game. “It’s a long game,” Harper said. “You just keep fighting and never give up. You have to trust in the coaching staff with the plays they have called. “You have to trust the receiver and just keep fighting,” he said. Clemson, 9-3, did and will play another day this season, having a shot at a 10-win season with a bowl victory. USC, its five-game slide complete at the hands of the Tigers who sealed the Gamecocks’ fate, is left pondering what might have been and what might be ahead. It all comes down to making plays. “To finish the season off right, that’s huge for us,” Harper said.