I have to dust off a cliche I have already used once this season - “a win, is a win, is a win” – to describe South Carolina's 28-25 “survival” at Central Florida. When the Gamecocks were down 10-0 at the half, did I believe in my heart that they weren't going to come back and win? No. In my head was I worried that they might not? Considerably.
I'm done with trying to predict how the flow of a game might go with this year's team. I thought Carolina would have to play through Vanderbilt's early emotion, but it was 28-0 before the Commodores knew what hit them, yet the Gamecocks had to hold on at the end for the win. I thought the same thing about the UCF game, but the Knights took the fight to the Cocks early and held them scoreless for two quarters, something I thought no opponent could do to a Steve Spurrier-coached team.
A big part of coaching a football game is halftime adjustments, and when the third quarter started with Dylan Thompson under center in the I formation, and it took just four plays for the Gamecocks to score on a 53-yard burst by Mike Davis. I felt like the worm had turned.
Then, when the defense responded by forcing back-to-back three-and-outs (with a Brandon Wilds fumble in between), and the offense executed an almost picture-perfect 11-play, 97-yard drive to put Carolina up 14-10, I was encouraged. A Jimmy Legree interception ended the next UCF possession, and a fumble recovery by Gerald Dixon stopped the next, which led to back-to-back 13-yard scoring runs by Davis, to make it 28-10. I sat back in my seat and waited for the rout to continue.
I don't think I'll be doing that again anytime soon, because the bug-a-boo that has been the feature of this season so far is rearing their its ugly heads: mistakes.
Mistake number one: two plays into the next series, the secondary turned a Knight receiver lose for a 73-yard touchdown, and with a two-point conversion it was suddenly 28-18.
In position to extend the lead back to 17 points, mistake number two came when Davis fumbled at the UCF 5-yard line. Then came mistake number three – the secondary again turned a UCF receiver lose for a 79-yard gain, to the USC seven, and a TD pass on the next play made it a very uncomfortable 28-25.
Luckily, USC's special teams responded by recovering the on-sides kick, which Bruce Ellington returned 31 yards to the UCF 15, and the Gamecocks were able to run off the 1:47 remaining in the game.
There were a number of positives for the 3-1 USC team. The offense, which had scored just 20 points in the second half in three games, scored 28 in the second half against the Knights.
The defense, for three consecutive series in the second half, showed the dominance we all believe it is capable of, game in and game out.
In my eyes, there were some heroes. I thought Dylan Thompson did a more than admiral job of filling in for Connor Shaw, who was injured on USC's first series and is expected to be out for two to three weeks with a shoulder sprain. Dylan was 15-for-22 passing for 261 yards. Yes, he airmailed some throws, but he scrambled well and made some big plays when his team needed them.
Mike Davis' 167 yards and three touchdowns (6.4 yard average) proved to me that he has the ability (I don't mean this literally, so no hate mail please) to make Carolina fans say “Marcus who?”
An unnoticed hero was punter Tyler Hull, who averaged 47.0 yards on three punts, two of which were inside the 20-yard line.
The offensive line demonstrated that they are the unit that, to this point, has its act together. The guys up front were solid the entire game in their run blocking and pass protection, and they should serve as an example to every other unit on the team.
Next up is Kentucky, and while USC has lost to the Wildcats only once since 2000 (31-28 in 2010) there have been some close calls since Spurrier took over in 2005 (24-17 in '06, 24-17 in '08 and 28-26 in '09). Even though they are starting over with a new coach Mark Stoops, the Cats will certainly come to Columbia encouraged by the struggles the Gamecocks have had this season.
Coach Spurrier has promised that there will continue to be some tweaks on the defensive side and that the staff will “coach 'em up” this week in practice. I still believe this team has the ability to have a big season. I also know this team has a lot of young players who are receiving a baptism under fire and that they need to improve their execution, focus and concentration if the are to continue to win.
It's a great time to be a Gamecock!