David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s win over Vanderbilt.
NO. 13 SOUTH CAROLINA 35, VANDERBILT 25
FIGURE THIS: South Carolina continues to come at defenses in a variety of ways. Having the running talents of Connor Shaw (he led the Gamecocks with 84 yards on Saturday) and bowling ball/Jamaican sprinter hybrid Mike Davis in the backfield (77 yards, including trucking Andre Hal early in the game) is keeping defenses from being too aggressive in pass coverage, and when they press the line or blitz, Shaw can throw over them. Ten guys caught at least one ball on Saturday, including Dylan Thompson, who threw a pass to himself on a deflection. The Gamecocks rolled up 579 yards and another five touchdowns, and there seems to be no signs of stopping. Everybody’s healthy, everybody’s producing, and of the receivers, it truly is the case of “if the first guy’s not doing it, we’ll put in somebody who will.” Saturday was Bruce Ellington’s turn after Nick Jones had become the breakout guy, and who caught a 12-yard bullet from Shaw to start the scoring. The man who is unmercifully heckled by the Williams-Brice Stadium faithful (nod to you, Darryl) caught eight passes for 111 yards and a score, with seven in the first half. Sure, it took a whole lot longer than expected, but this is the kind of light-it-up, exciting, multi-faceted offense that Steve Spurrier has always wanted at USC. And it took what Vanderbilt gave it in a Lionel situation – getting the ball to receivers in space against overmatched linebackers. All. Night. Long.
WHOSE HOUSE?: After being ripped up one side and down the other for a deplorable performance at Georgia last week (and deservedly so, especially when the excuses for it had no two sounding alike), USC’s defense played a very strong game. Yes, Vanderbilt put up points late, but consider – only once did the Commodores drive the field to score, and that was on a 54-yard field goal. Vandy punted on its first five possessions, which featured sacks from Chaz Sutton, Kelcy Quarles and Sharrod Golightly, and the only reason it got back in the game was because of a Thompson interception returned to the 1-yard-line and two special teams gaffes. The Gamecocks held Vandy to a mere 268 yards, and while Spurrier was plenty peeved during the game, it was understandable – once again, USC had backtracked into letting a comfortable, easy win get way to close. The defense did improve, despite what the scoreboard said, and really helped out the total team concept. It stopped Vandy early, and said, “OK, offense, we did our job, you do yours.” What you want to see.
JD, WHAT YOU GOT FOR ME?: Everyone saw it coming, except for quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. He faded back to pass and suddenly was enveloped by a Mack truck from Rock Hill. Jadeveon Clowney sacked him and forced the year’s first turnover when Carta-Samuels fumbled and Quarles recovered. The man’s OK, folks. I agree with what a national scribe said earlier this week – “The Hit” was the worst thing that could have happened to him.
COLD BUSTA’ED: There’s Busta Anderson. He was just hiding, which even more so resembled Franklin the Turtle (or a certain ring-less professional quarterback) after he dropped the first ball thrown to him. Shaw went right back to him on the next play and Anderson finished with three catches for 30 yards.
STRENGTHENED: Thompson completed his first six passes (and seven for the season) before one bounced off Jerell Adams’ hands, but looked strong on his two possessions. He finished 7-of-9 for 75 yards and ran in a touchdown, and he feathered some nice balls downfield while also showing off some wheels (23 yards on three rushes). There was just that one glitch
AS KEROSENE-SOAKED ROADSIDE STEAK: Tough. Shaw is just tough. Vandy climbed back into the game and was all pumped up, taking harder shots on the quarterback when he put his body into the pile, which seemed like every play. But Shaw just kept getting up. The game had to be won, and he knew that if he took his hands off the ball, it was just increasing the chance that something bad would happen. Perhaps that fumble last week really jerked a knot in his tail – it was a great play by the defense, and Shaw has played magnificently this year, but it was really ill-timed. He took it personally. Grind the clock, get the first down, make sure Vanderbilt doesn’t get it – whatever. He seemed to be daring Spurrier to call something other than “Shaw, run around with it.”
* SPECIAL: Landon Ard kept his opening kickoff inbounds for the first time this year. Elliott Fry didn’t miss a PAT. Damiere Byrd knocked the smile off some dude’s mother on a punt return. Spurrier’s favorite player, Sidney Rhodes, had three tackles. See, there were good things
EHHHH?: The defense scurried around like it needed 11 ear trumpets to hear the signals. Marcquis Roberts was running around like the proverbial bird with no noggin and bumped into a referee. Seeing all that, it was no surprise when Carta-Samuels hit Wesley Tate for a quick touchdown to make it 35-25. After all the talk about miscommunication last week, the Gamecocks picked a bad time to not get their signals in.
BLESS YOU: Thompson was just fine when he came in the first time, and was doing well the second time, until he cast long down the sideline with USC holding a 28-0 lead. Steven Clarke picked off the floater and raced to the 1-yard-line. Big play at a big time – Vanderbilt climbed right back into the game because of that. Otherwise, we might all be discussing how USC had scored on every possession and how it made us pressbox schlubs look up the record for most points in a game.
CLANG! CLANG!: Shaq Roland somehow lost a ball that he had all the way to the ground. He landed on his back with it, and then it slipped out. Still trying to figure out how, since playing with those gloves is like having thumbtacks taped to your fingers. He got past that for three catches for 38 yards. But then Shamier Jeffery came in, was wide open in the flat, leaped, and the pass was off his hands. I get it every week – how come he doesn’t play more? That’s why.
REMEMBER WHEN?: There have been so many games over the years where USC has raced to a big lead, and everybody begins to relax, thinking it’s a comfortable win, and then – yeah, you remember this program, right? USC thought it was past that after the past three years. Nope. 28-0 became getting outscored 25-7 for the duration. Yeesh.
* SPECIAL: Ellington nearly got knocked back to Moncks Corner because he didn’t wave fair catch on a kick return. On a 75-yard punt (!!!), Ellington got flagrantly late hit and was going to get 15 yards added to a return that stopped at the 4. Until Jamari Smith comes barreling in like a moose on roller skates and gets flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, offsetting the penalty. C’mon, guy!
IS GETTING TICKETED THAT IMPORTANT?: I was under the impression that Greek life rush was over. You couldn’t tell by the way the students rushed out of the stands when USC went up 28-0. The empty stands, which were criticized by Shaw and Davis afterward, was a pathetic showing. It was an evening game, bars close at 2 a.m. on Saturdays, and I suppose everyone wanted to get those last few precious seconds – or perhaps Miller Lites -- in. At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man here (although I can do a killer Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”), there were a lot of times when a 28-0 second-quarter lead at USC would have had students pitching tents for the next week, bye or no. These seats cleared like somebody had spread the rumor that Scarlett Johansson was operating a kissing booth down at the Village Idiot. I surely don’t want to hear any more about how USC never gets any respect from the national view with a showing like that.
* SPECIAL: It’s been a constant process at USC. Some weeks, the special teams coach is the greatest thing since the original Legend of Zelda and some weeks, he gets stuck with the bill for the hotel stay that weekend. Joe Robinson, poor guy, has got to be searching for the Pepto after Spurrier backhanded his squad by telling him he had to find him some better players for special teams. Everything was OK until a sequence of plays (after Thompson’s interception) put Vanderbilt back in the game. Tyler Hull boots an 18-yard punt (can they lobby to go back to the backyard way of doing it, where the quarterback just throws it downfield?) Shon Carson, after bobbling one kickoff and picking it back up, fumbles another one away at the 19, and most likely fumbled away his future as a kick returner with it. T.J. Gurley has a punt, after a defensive stop, bounce off his heel. That one was just bad luck, since he was doing what he was supposed to do and the ball just took a bad hop. But, all of it together is back to the drawing board for the Gamecocks, and the board could cover the entire South end zone with all of these problems.
Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState