CLEMSON, S.C. – South Carolina found again what it's like on the wrong side of the Palmetto State's biggest sports rivalry.
After an unprecedented run of five consecutive wins, the one-time Southeastern Conference Eastern Division favorites fell 35-17 to the 23rd-ranked Tigers on Saturday.
"This isn't going to define who we are," Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson said. "We've had many wins, many wins over these guys. But today they came to play and beat us."
Clemson (9-3) hadn't won since 2008 when Dabo Swinney was still interim coach and the victory helped earn him the fulltime job. The Gamecocks (6-6) had used young playmakers like tailback Marcus Lattimore in 2010, quarterback Connor Shaw in 2011 and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in 2012 to grab a stranglehold on the rivalry.
Even Thompson, a sophomore backup, came on for injured starter Shaw to lead a 27-17 win at Death Valley two years ago. This time, it was Clemson's No. 1 ranked defense and young offensive stars who took control.
"It's kind of upsetting not beating this team in this rivalry your senior season," Gamecocks guard A.J. Cann said. "But in the past, we really did a good job against them, beating them five times in a row."
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.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 269 yards and ran for two touchdowns, Wayne Gallman rushed for 191 yards and a score and Artavis Scott took two short inside flip passes for scores of 53 and 70 yards.
Scott finished with seven catches for 185 yards.
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. The school said Watson can't injure the ligament anymore while wearing a brace.
"He is a mental and genetic freak," Swinney said of Watson. "I don't know how else to put it."
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 coming off three straight 11-2 seasons and picked to win the SEC East at league 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.
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.
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. Beasley added his ACC-leading 11th sack in the second half.