October 21, 2012

Morris: Discouraging loss does not end season

The sun came up this morning in Columbia, although it did not seem as likely after it set on South Carolina’s football season Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. No doubt, USC can still salvage an outstanding season.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The sun came up this morning in Columbia, although it did not seem as likely after it set on South Carolina’s football season Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

No doubt, USC can still salvage an outstanding season. Another 11-win season remains a possibility. The state title is still to be determined. But now gone is USC’s long, long shot to win the SEC East or the league championship. National championship aspirations are gone.

So, the only conclusion that can be culled from Saturday’s loss is that the Gamecocks were not ready for the big time. Back-to-back performances in which you are dominated by top-10 opponents is evidence of that.

Saturday’s loss was particularly disheartening because USC never had a chance, taken down by self-inflicted wounds in the first half and shot down by a superior opponent in the second.

“It could have been a heck of a game for everybody,” Steve Spurrier said afterward, “but we just laid the ball on the ground and said we don’t want this thing bad enough. It was embarrassing for us, very embarrassing way to lose.”

Throughout most of the second half, Spurrier stood virtually motionless on the sideline, his arms folded in apparent resignation. His teams lost five times at “The Swamp” during his 12-year coaching run at Florida, and he has been on the short end of three scores there since taking the reins at USC.

None of those losses could have been longer for Spurrier than Saturday. As the nation’s ninth-ranked team, this was supposed to be USC’s best chance to tell a national audience that it was prepared to play on the big stage. Instead, USC was no match for third-ranked and unbeaten Florida.

A severe case of fumble-itis provided a gift-wrapped, 21-6 halftime lead for Florida. At that point, the Gators had 29 yards of offense and two first downs, yet led thanks to scoring drives that covered 2, 29 and 1 yards.

With a USC offense that has proved to be inept in consecutive games, the chances of rallying in the final half were slim. Or maybe none. This is a Florida team that entered having outscored its opponents 98-23 in the second half.

It also was a USC offense that was stuck in neutral against LSU and never could find first gear against Florida. With 10 minutes remaining in the game, one in which the outcome already was decided, USC had 105 yards of offense. For the second consecutive week, USC could not run the ball.

“They stuffed our running game,” Spurrier said. “They stuffed our passing game. We didn’t make much.”

Florida, like LSU, prevented quarterback Connor Shaw from scrambling out of the pocket. Thanks to two sacks, Shaw finished with minus-2 yards rushing. Running back Marcus Lattimore (three carries for 13 yards) might have been slowed by an injury, but it would not have mattered had he been in perfect health. There were no holes to be found against Florida’s front line.

Coming off a 34-yard rushing performance against LSU, USC managed 36 yards against Florida. When an offense relies on the running game, which USC did in opening the season with six wins, a lack of a ground attack puts immense pressure on the passing game.

USC does not have a strong passing attack to begin with. When Shaw proved ineffective with a 9-for-20 showing for 20 yards in the first half, Spurrier went to backup Dylan Thompson in the second half. Thompson fared no better, completing 8-of-20 passes for 83 yards.

Again, it really did not matter who was calling the signals. USC’s offensive line could not stand up to a Florida defensive front that is among the best in the country. As a result, USC did not score a touchdown and managed 3 yards or fewer eight of the 14 times it had the ball.

“We will re-evaluate,” Spurrier said. “Maybe we just need to say, ‘Hey, we can’t throw the ball anymore.’ If we have to run the ball three (times) and punt the first five possessions, that might be what we need to do not to play give-away.”

In the end, it appears that LSU beat up USC physically a week ago, and, judging from the long faces and dejected looks on the sideline late in Saturday’s game, Florida might have cut the heart out of the Gamecocks.

“We are embarrassed right now because we had some performances that didn’t give us a chance,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers right now, but we have to regroup somehow and do some things differently.”

Perhaps the regrouping started with the sun coming up this morning.

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