November 26, 2010

Gamecocks Wary of Bowers

There may be some dislike for the rivalry opponent, as there should be, but ever since the despicable brawl that occurred in the 2004 South Carolina-Clemson game, the two teams have taken pains to avoid any kind of bulletin-board material. Even if they don't believe it, the two express healthy respects for each other in the week leading up to the game.

On the Gamecocks' side this year, healthy respect for one particular Tiger is just that. These are no tongue-in-cheek remarks.

"We're not going to be able to get a read on him," USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said. "He's a great football player. He's going to be a force to be reckoned with."

The player? Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. Rated by some as the top prospect in the country two years ago, Bowers has more than lived up to his projections in his junior season.

The numbers (63 tackles, 24 for loss, 15.5 sacks) are impressive enough, but are made more so by the context. Bowers is closing in on some school and conference records, which he hopes to either set on Saturday or make progress toward setting them.

He is half a sack behind Keith Adams for a tie atop Clemson's single-season sack chart, and three and a half behind tying Florida State's Peter Boulware for the ACC's single-season record. Bowers has a slim shot at tying or surpassing Arizona State's Terrell Suggs (24) for the national single-season record, but only with huge performances on Saturday and in the Tigers' bowl game.

With his 15.5 already, Bowers has the most sacks by any ACC player since Adams had 16 in 1999. A finalist for the Lombardi, Bednarik and Nagurski awards and one of 15 players on a watch list for the Walter Camp National Player of the Year, Bowers will almost certainly be a first-round NFL draft pick should he go pro after this year, most scouts projecting him as a sure Top-10 selection.

He has two games to play first, beginning Saturday with the rivalry game against USC.

The Gamecocks' offense is peaking, scoring 105 points in its last two games and showing off every bit of its explosive nature throughout. Helmed by tailback Marcus Lattimore and wideout Alshon Jeffery, opposing defenses know that stopping one star only unleashes the other.

It's been an easy task to be a USC offensive player for the past two weeks, but USC hasn't faced a defender like Bowers in the past two weeks, either. The formula this week has been about staying away from him, which isn't going to be easy.

"I came up with a good plan," Elliott said. "I said if he lines up on the left, we sprint away from him to the right. If he lines up on the right, we sprint to the left. That's about the best solution I can come up with."

The Tigers line Bowers up all over the field, putting him at each end spot and sometimes over nose tackle. He often stands up behind two down linemen while the offenses set, so he can move to his spot off the cuff. Quarterback Stephen Garcia, already expecting to have to play on the foot since the Death Valley crowd won't be silent, may have to go to several audibles once he sees where Bowers is playing on each snap.

Coach Steve Spurrier has already said that it's no secret what the Gamecocks will try to do to get their offense going - run Lattimore. That's been the key to success so far and USC will go to it until Clemson proves it can stop it.

Lattimore was excited for the opportunity on Wednesday but still wary of Bowers.

"He's a great player," Lattimore said. "Real big and fast. We've got to stop him. He's leading in sacks. Can't let that happen."

Stopping him while protecting Garcia or opening holes for Lattimore falls to the offensive line, which may have extra blockers on every snap. It seems to be a good idea to line up a tight end on most every play, spying on Bowers to give the lineman he will go against an extra hurdle to get around.

But then again, Bowers might line up in one place, switch to another and the Gamecocks suddenly have an uncovered hole. All of the linemen are simply going to have to get in Bowers' way and refuse to get out of it.

"Da'Quan's definitely a good player, but we trust in our coaches and the schemes that they got drawn up," center T.J. Johnson said. "We're going to go out there and hopefully we can go out there and execute."

If only it was that simple.

"I just hope we can get in his way," Elliott said. "I told them, fall down, cut him, do whatever we got to to stop him, but he's a guy that's so multiple. He is going to be a challenge. He's one of the best we've faced, and probably one of the best we've faced in a long time."

Elliott has done a wonderful job with the line this year, drawing toughness and outstanding play from a unit that was severely challenged with depth and had been beaten up for the past three seasons.

Against his biggest test this week, and in one of his biggest settings, he's hoping to get more.

USC-Clemson Game Week sponsored by Mallard Orchard Hunt Club

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