COLUMBIA, S.C. — It wasn’t the start South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier expected and the play of All-American Jadeveon Clowney wasn’t what many had anticipated.
About the only person not too concerned was Clowney.
The 6-foot-6, 274-pound defensive lineman was credited with three tackles and four quarterback hurries in the Gamecocks’ pedestrian-like 27-10 victory over North Carolina on Thursday night. Spurrier was clearly bothered that Clowney and others on defense looked winded at times against the Tar Heels high-speed offense. Clowney and the Gamecocks did manage to hold North Carolina to 293 yards and the fewest points scored by the Tar Heels under coach Larry Fedora.
Clowney, a Heisman Trophy candidate, vowed things would get better the way they had last season when he finished with 13 sacks to earn Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year. He was the least concerned at missing the chance to put on show in the season opener.
“Don’t matter,” Clowney said. “We got the win. Did you see the score?”
Clowney acknowledged he was bothered by a stomach virus during the week and only ate a banana, a few grapes and fluids before the game. He and his teammates struggled in the heavy heat and 100 percent humidity — the game was suspended nearly two hours because of severe weather — and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said he talked with Clowney about making sure he gave himself the best chance to play consistently well each game.
“I told him he might have to watch what he’s eating if his energy’s down,” Ward said. “We have to make sure we can play more than three, four, five plays at a time.”
It wasn’t all a case of conditioning. North Carolina’s high-tempo attack — Ward called it the fastest offense he’d seen — played away from Clowney’s side of the ball. The Tar Heels used two and sometimes three players to push Clowney away from the play. And Clowney faced a strong challenge from North Carolina left tackle James Hurst, an all-ACC performer also considered a top NFL pick who spent the offseason hearing how he’d be overrun by the Gamecocks defensive terror.
Hurst said he made it his mission not to let the NFL’s presumptive No. 1 pick get a hand on Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner. Clowney came close a couple of times, but did not register a sack.
“He did have his plays,” Hurst said. “There were a couple of plays I remember where he definitely beat me. That was my goal I didn’t want him to knock our quarterback, I was proud of that.”
Clowney has had a flair for the dramatic moment during his career — “The Hit” in the Outback Bowl came after South Carolina got the wrong end of a fourth-down measurement — and there were few of those in this one. The Gamecocks took a 17-0 lead in the first quarter off Connor Shaw’s 65-yard touchdown pass to Shaq Roland and Dylan Thompson’s 29-yard TD strike to Kane Whitehurst.
When North Carolina sliced things to 20-10 with a field goal on the first drive of the second half, South Carolina tailback Mike Davis broke free for a 75-yard scoring run on the Gamecocks’ next play for a 27-10 lead.