CLEMSON, S.C. — No. 23 Clemson stopped the countdown on its losing streak to South Carolina. Now, the Tigers are looking to a new countdown to how many more Palmetto Bowl victories they might achieve behind freshmen Deshaun Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott.
"How about that?" Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "You got young guys making a lot of plays out there. It says the future is definitely bright."
Watson threw for 269 yards and ran for two touchdowns, playing on a torn ACL coach Dabo Swinney said he hurt two days before last week's game against Georgia State.
Gallman gained 191 yards and a touchdown and Scott took two short inside passes long distance for scores and finished with 185 yards rushing in the 35-17 victory over the rival Gamecocks (6-6) on Saturday.
It had been an ugly five seasons of defeats, an unprecedented run of failure that overshadowed its Atlantic Coast Conference title in 2011 and a pair of 11-2 seasons in 2012 and 2013. But with the dynamic young players and a defense that lived up its No. 1 ranking, the Tigers (9-3) prevailed.
Clemson players doused coach Dabo Swinney, carried him off the field and celebrated as if they'd won a championship — and why not after the five straight defeats.
"That's too long," said senior defensive tackle DeShawn Williams.
Swinney said afterwards that Watson had torn the ACL in his left knee at practice on Nov. 20. He will play in Clemson's bowl game, then have surgery and return next summer.
Swinney said having Watson back gave the offense a rhythm missing at times this season. "Offensively, we had 491 yards with zero sacks, and Deshaun Watson was unbelievable," he said.
Gallman believes it may be Clemson's time to string several wins together. "We're all coming back," he said. "We're not going anywhere."
Watson has missed four full games and most of two others with a broken hand and, most recently, a sprained knee ligament. He hobbled off twice in the opening half, yet was around at the end and finished 14 of 19 for 269 yards and two 1-yard rushing TDs in first significant action since defeating North Carolina State on Oct. 4.
"I knew I was going to feel some pain because I wasn't 100 percent," Watson said. "I just go out with a confident mindset and have fun."
Clemson's top-ranked defense also helped out, twice stopping the Gamecocks on fourth down in the second half. Defensive end Vic Beasley had two sacks and forced a fumble.
South Carolina could not keep Steve Spurrier's mastery over the Tigers going. The Gamecocks hadn't ever won more than four straight in a Palmetto Bowl series Clemson leads 66-42-4.
It was also a humbling defeat for a South Carolina team picked to win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division at SEC media days last July.
"I told the guys, '6-6 might be what we are,'" said Spurrier, who coached his 400th career game in the pros and college.
Quarterback Dylan Thompson 21 of 39 for 249 yards — enough to push him past former passer Todd Ellis as the school's all-time single-season yardage leader at 3,254 yards.
Clemson's been counting down to this one for a while, so much so that the Tigers put in a clock last spring that ticked away the moments until kickoff against their rivals.
Yet, things started in that same, old South Carolina way with the Gamecocks getting a 20-yard burst from Cooper out of the wildcat formation for a 7-0 lead. South Carolina gained 98 yards the first 11 minutes on a Clemson defense that allows just 252 a game.
But with Watson in control, the Tigers' offense soon got moving.
He had a 25-yard pass to Mike Williams before Scott's first TD to tie things at 7-all.
Beasley's 10th sack of the season forced a fumble by Thompson — the seventh time in Beasley's 31 career sacks he's forced a fumble — at the South Carolina 36.
Gallman gave Clemson the lead for good with runs of 31 and 5 yards for a touchdown.
The Tigers moved in front 21-7 on their next series, Watson sneaking in from a yard out to finish the 61-yard drive.
The Gamecocks had their lowest point total this season.