COLUMBIA, S.C. — Losing to South Carolina for the third time in four tries made Clemson coach Dabo Swinney sick to his stomach. The only thing that helps the queasiness is getting to play for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship again.
The No. 18 Tigers (9-3) lost 34-13 on Saturday night to the 14th-ranked Gamecocks (10-2), dropping their third in a row to their in-state rivals for the first time since 1968-70.
A South Carolina team that averaged 278 yards in its final four Southeastern Conference games gained 420 yards against Clemson. The Tigers gained just 153 yards.
"To play like this in the rivalry game is very disappointing. But it's over. We've got to move on," said Swinney, who became the first Clemson coach to go 1-3 in his first four games against South Carolina since Jess Neely in 1934.
Even though they have lost two in a row, the Tigers still head to the ACC title game next week against Virginia Tech, a team they beat 23-3 in Blacksburg on Oct. 1. But the Hokies have won seven in a row since then, while Clemson has gone 4-3.
"We're just not playing winning football. It's as simple as that," Swinney said.
The Tigers were 8-0 at one point, pushing their way into the national title conversation. But since then, they've lost three of their last four in no small part because the offensive line is struggling to block. Clemson is running for less than 97 yards a game during the stretch, and quarterback Tajh Boyd has been sacked 13 times — five of them Saturday night by the Gamecocks.
Boyd went 11 for 30 for 83 yards, by far his worst outing of the year.
"Tonight, he didn't really have a chance," Swinney said of the sophomore. "He was back running for his life all night."
Boyd didn't put all the blame on the offensive line, saying he panicked too quickly as things disintegrated in front of him.
"I have to become wiser and more composed. I just need to be more confident in my guys and not immediately run out of the pocket," Boyd said.
Boyd did break Clemson's single-season mark with his 28th touchdown pass, a first-half scoring throw to Dwayne Allen.
Clemson's sudden lack of offensive production is frustrating everyone. Running back Andre Ellington, who hasn't run for over 100 yards since returning for an injury three games ago, walked off from his postgame interview three questions in when someone asked why the offensive production is so far down.
The loss stung even more because Clemson has dominated this rivalry since it began. The Tigers came in with a 65-39-4 edge in the state's most talked-about matchup. Tommy Bowden, the coach Swinney replaced, may have never made it to the ACC title game, but he kept Clemson fans at bay for a long time by going 7-2 against the Gamecocks.
"Historically, Clemson has owned this series," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "They don't own us now."
Swinney is acutely aware of the rivalry's place and how much Tigers fans enjoy holding their success over the heads of their friends who root for the Gamecocks. He called it the most important game of the year more than once in his postgame news conference, despite having the chance next week to win Clemson's first ACC title since 1991.
"We've lost three in a row. I've got to live with that," said Swinney, who then talked about how this loss made him as sick to his stomach as it does Clemson fans.
"I can't stand it," he said.
The thing that bothered Swinney the most from the loss was how well his defense let South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw play. The sophomore finished 14 of 20 passing for 210 yards in his first taste of the rivalry, including the longest touchdown pass of his career in a 49-yard strike to Bruce Ellington. Shaw also led the Gamecocks with 107 yards rushing.
"That's the most disappointing thing to me coming out of this game — we let the quarterback beat us," Swinney said.
Still, the season is far from lost for Clemson. A win over Virginia Tech would give the Tigers 10 wins for the first time since 1990 and a bid to the Orange Bowl as the ACC champion. Clemson hasn't been to a bowl in the current BCS rotation since the 1981 national championship team that beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
That's why tight end Dwayne Allen said the team needs to get over this loss before they get on the bus.
"We're not in disarray. We still have goals," Allen said. "We have to get ready for the ACC championship now."