CLEMSON — Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel will do everything in his power to ensure that he leaves the field Saturday night having gone a perfect 4-0 against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
The Gamecocks last won in his redshirt season in 2013 -- topping the Tigers 31-17.
Since that game, the redshirt senior has helped the Tigers run off three straight wins over their in-state rival — something that gives O’Daniel and the entire senior class a sense of pride.
"We're playing with a lot of pride behind that, to be a senior class that hasn't lost to them,” O’Daniel said. “It's definitely something that I take a lot of pride in and the rest of the team that has been there during the rest of the time takes pride in. Hopefully we execute our game plan and we can go out undefeated."
Over the years, the landscape of college recruiting has undergone a change — from focusing on in-state athletes to recruiting on a national level. It is that change that has led to student-athletes having to be educated on what each school’s rivalry looks like.
Such an education was not necessary the Maryland native. O’Daniel entered Clemson with an understanding of how important the Clemson-South Carolina football game is to people in the state and how important it is to the players on the field.
"I came in from Day 1 understanding.” O’Daniel said. “I know during one of my visits early on in the recruiting process, I had came here and we had lost that night and it just sucked the life out of the valley. Players were upset, obviously, and from then I just understood what it meant -- the rivalry -- because it's the battle for the state. It wasn't too hard to pick up."
Even though he entered Clemson with an understanding of the importance of the rivalry, he is taking time to make certain the young players on this year’s team know what this game means.
"Just tell them to compare it to any rivalry that they had in high school, but times 10,"
O’Daniel said. “Obviously, at the college level, tensions are a lot higher, fan bases are a lot bigger and I feel like there's a lot more pride involved. So just expressing it to the younger guys."
The finalist for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker, O’Daniel has emerged as one of the most dynamic linebackers in Clemson history.
O’Daniel is the Tigers' leading tackler with 90 tackles, 21 more tackles than any other Tiger. He has led Clemson in tackles in four of their 11 games and has two interceptions returned for scores this season.
“It's really surreal and humbling. At first, I thought I was going to make the semifinalist or whatever and I didn't hear too much about it,” O’Daniel said. “I was like, it was nice that I made a semifinalist. But then I got word yesterday that I was a finalist and I looked up who else made it -- what other linebackers made it -- but to be compared and to see my hard work being noticed at that high of a level and for an award that special, I'm very thankful for that."
With the accolades coming toward O’Daniel as the regular season comes to a close, he understands that this week it is all about finding a way to stop the Gamecock offense and quarterback Jake Bentley — a player he has seen grow up as the season has progressed.
“Just like any quarterback, you're going to get better and more confident as the season goes on,” O’Daniel said. “I feel like he does a really good job keeping his eyes down the field while he does scramble -- he's not really looking to run, rather than make something happen while he's to avoid pressure from the pocket. So he's just progressed as a player."
While Bentley has progressed as a quarterback through the season, it was his comments following last season’s 56-7 victory by the Tigers that got the fan bases on both sides fired up.
“At the end of the game, everyone knew that they weren’t that much better than us or better than us at all,” Bentley said.
He continued to say that “never again” would the Gamecock be “outcompeted like that” in a game. Those words have caused a stir among Clemson fans and a sense of pride among Gamecock fans — who feel their team will have an emotional edge this year because of the their “big quote” this year, “Never again.”
O’Daniel and the Tigers are not concerning themselves with catch-phrases. Instead, they are concerned with striking first, fast and hard.
“I'm not too worried about anything that they have as far as edgewise for us,” O’Daniel said. “It's just a season of its own and if we go out there and know it's the biggest game of the year and it's personal and go out there and execute our game plan, just worry about Clemson - -we're not really worried about what they have going on over there.
"Whoever draws blood first. It's all about intensity and momentum, especially early in the game. Just letting the other team know that we're here to impose our will -- whatever that may be. Just coming out, firing fast and firing hard."