"Ready for all your questions about conditioning," the South Carolina defensive end said Thursday night as he took his seat for a press conference following the Gamecocks' 27-10 demolition of North Carolina. "Let's get it."
And the questions came. How could Clowney, hyped by certain, unnamed people as a cross between Reggie White and Rambo, post a three-tackle, zero-sack, zero-plays-that-can-run-on-loop-on-SportsCenter night when all of us just spent almost nine months waiting for a Clowney sack-baby on opening night? How could he spend so much time with his hands on his hips? How could he be the player on the field most in need of the 104-minute lightning delay that left the teams playing the final eight minutes in front of family, friends and degenerate gamblers who cheered lustily when South Carolina stuffed North Carolina at the goal line in garbage time to stone a backdoor cover?
Clowney wasn't slowed by the illegal block delivered in the fourth quarter by North Carolina tackle Kiaro Holts. That was cheap, but it came far too late to use an excuse. Here are a few other excuses, though. Maybe Clowney struggled because the Tar Heels devoted extra resources to slow him on many plays, freeing up other Gamecocks to make tackles. Maybe, as Clowney said, he struggled because he had a stomach virus. Maybe because North Carolina, despite possessing the ball only 53 seconds longer than South Carolina, squeezed off 79 plays with a veteran quarterback (Bryn Renner) who excels at getting rid of the ball quickly. Maybe because it was hotter than the seventh circle of hell at Williams-Brice Stadium at kickoff Thursday.
Or maybe there isn't an excuse. Maybe, just maybe, Clowney had an off game because he had an off game.
If that's the case, it raises an interesting question. How good will South Carolina look when Clowney has a good game?
As the questions about Clowney's conditioning continued, Clowney pressed pause on the interview. "Hold up," he said. "Let me tell you some stats. You see those total yards right there?" Clowney then offered a paraphrased version of the following: North Carolina averaged 485.6 yards and 40.6 points last year in its first season using coach Larry Fedora's fast-break offense. In spite of the frequent snaps, the Tar Heels managed only 293 yards, a touchdown and a field goal Thursday. "The team with the most plays doesn't always win. The team with the most points wins," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said, repeating a mantra he first trotted out before his Florida team faced Hal Mumme's Kentucky team in 1998. "That's what we're about here. We can win some ugly ones."
Spurrier considered Thursday hideous. Afterward, he thanked everyone who waited out the lightning. "I appreciate everybody hanging around for that uneventful eight minutes," he said. To Spurrier, the entire second half -- save for a 75-yard touchdown run by Mike Davis in the third quarter -- was brutally uneventful.
"We were trying to get a completion in the second half," Spurrier said. "Did we have any? We didn't have any. That's a first." (South Carolina actually had one second-half completion, but why stop Spurrier when he's on a roll?)
What Spurrier only mentioned in passing was a surgical first-half performance by his offense. After Davis rushed twice for 17 yards on South Carolina's first possession, quarterback Connor Shaw hit receiver Shaq Roland for a 65-yard touchdown. On South Carolina's second drive, the Gamecocks faced a fourth-and-2 manhood challenge at the North Carolina 30-yard line. Shaw handed to Brandon Wilds, and the entire pile move for eight we're-just-better-than-you-on-the-line-of-scrimmage yards. That led to a field goal. On South Carolina's third possession, backup quarterback Dylan Thompson came in for one play and threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Kane Whitehurst. In Thompson's last two passing attempts dating back to the Outback Bowl, he is 2-2 for 61 yards and two touchdowns. I majored in journalism, so my math is probably off, but that has to make Thompson's quarterback rating just shy of infinity.
Of course, the pressing question is whether South Carolina can do any of this against Georgia in Athens on Sept. 7. The Gamecocks have beaten the Bulldogs in three consecutive meetings, but for the past two seasons, Georgia has ridden an easier schedule draw into the SEC championship game. This time, South Carolina has the easier schedule. The Gamecocks may not have to win the Georgia game to win the SEC East, but beating the Bulldogs certainly would make the path that much easier.
So what happens if Clowney shows up between the hedges and has his hands on his hips in the first quarter? If Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray remains upright, he can decimate a defense. Gamecocks cornerback Victor Hampton doubts the Gamecocks will struggle with fatigue in Athens the way they did Thursday. "I think next week we'll be a little more conditioned," Hampton said. "I don't think Georgia moves as fast as those guys, and I don't think they'll get the ball out as fast as Renner did because of the system they ran."
We know Clowney can get near the quarterback when rested. In the fourth quarter, he nearly brought down Renner for his first sack of the season, but he missed him. Afterward, Clowney seethed. "I live for a sack," he said. "You know that. I'd give up a touchdown for a sack, yes. I was heated."
But Clowney wasn't heated because he missed out on the Thursday-night-in-August-Heisman. About that -- and the criticism of his play Thursday -- he didn't seem to care very much at all. "Don't matter," Clowney said. "We got the win. Did you see the score?"