It's clearer than ever that for ESPN and much of the rest of the traditional sports media, South Carolina's season is as much about Jadeveon Clowney's Heisman campaign as it is anything else. Just consider for a moment the AP writeup of the game.
The headline reads, "Jadeveon Clowney, No. 6 South Carolina cruise past UNC in season opener". He's the guy that even casual college football fans know, so he's right there in the headline. Despite giving him top billing over the rest of the team, the AP actually downplays Clowney's performance.
Clowney did not have a sack and finished with three first-half tackles. The Tar Heels' fast-paced offense wore him down and forced him to the sideline for several pit stops, yet he and the defense mostly hemmed in North Carolina. ...
If he makes it to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation in December, he likely won't have this game on his highlight reel.
No sacks, three tackles.
It doesn't matter that UNC altered its entire game plan to deal with him long before the game even started. Every time the Tar Heels ran or threw a quick screen away from him, he was altering the play. There even was a wide receiver screen away from him early in the game where he came around the end and nearly made the tackle on the other side of the field. It was very impressive to see.
No sacks, three tackles.
It also doesn't help that the majority of fans and even some media voices don't really understand defensive line play all that well. Sometimes he's going to rotate out of the game because that's what defensive linemen always do. Despite that fact, he still played the majority of snaps against a hurry-up offense designed to make the defense tired. He did it while apparently battling a stomach bug and, uh, not quite being in game shape yet (?).
Still: no sacks, three tackles.
This is why purely defensive players just don't win the Heisman, and defensive linemen have the hardest time with the voting. It's nothing if not a stat-driven award, and the things that exemplary defenders do will not always generate a stat. Charles Woodson had to moonlight as a receiver and returner to win the thing. Manti Te'o had tons of tackles and got the Notre Dame boost but finished second. Ndamukong Suh put up absurd numbers for a defensive tackle and finished a distant fourth anyway.
As long as South Carolina wins games, Clowney will have plenty of more chances to impress people on national TV. If he gets another hit like the one he had against Michigan in the bowl, it'll wipe away a lot of the residue of this game. For now, though, Clowney is the guy who got tired and who failed to shake his takes-plays-off reputation.
It's difficult to remember a defensive player coming into a season with the Heisman hype that Clowney has in 2013, so his campaign is far from over. However, last night's game against UNC illustrated perfectly why it'll be a steep, uphill climb for him to bring the award back to Columbia.