David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s win over UCF.
NO. 12 SOUTH CAROLINA 28, UCF 25
BEASTIE BOY: Not MCA. Not Kid Ad-rock. That only leaves Mike D (although I can understand if you thought of Mixmaster Mike, Q-Tip, etc.) The Gamecocks have themselves a game-changer, folks, and it’s the earnest kid from Georgia who runs like a flaming bowling ball. As USC found out (later than it should have, but found out), if the game’s close or needs to be taken over, hand the ball to Mike Davis. We’ll all probably never know what exactly was said in that halftime locker room, but I dearly hope that someone (and I know it wouldn’t have been Davis himself) went right up to the coaches, channeled their best Keyshawn and said, “Just give him the damn ball” while pointing to No. 28. Davis took the ball on nearly every meaningful possession and his only mistake was fumbling on the goal line when a touchdown would have made the Gamecocks feel a heck of a lot more comfortable than they ultimately did. Otherwise, he rushed 26 times for 167 yards and three touchdowns, with a sterling 6.4 yards per carry (which would have been around 8 yards per carry had it not been for a few late jumbo sets designed to grind clock, not field). Davis can handle the punishment, too, which is the best thing. With USC now hurting at quarterback and not having a lot of options with Davis, he’s going to have to.
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TIME FOR PLAN D: USC knew it had a capable backup in case Connor Shaw got hurt again, and even a candidate to start if Shaw was healthy, because Dylan Thompson had played so well last year in relief. Well, he’s whistled for his save-the-day white horse (named Gideon or Samson, I bet) to once again come hither, it’s time to ride. Yes, Thompson mightily struggled on Saturday (some due to play-calling, like asking him to sweep left end on third-and-2, but most because he wasn’t throwing the ball like he could) but in the end, he made enough fine plays to win. He withstood some late blitzing to find open men for big gains. He hooked up with Damiere Byrd for four catches and 70 yards (Shaw had one short toss to Byrd), which really loomed large when his usual go-to receiver, Upstate crony Nick Jones, somehow dropped a pass right in his breadbasket inside the 5-yard-line. He even ran some, getting a big touchdown when he rolled out right, had two men open and pump-faked the defense into keeping them covered while he got one foot into the corner. Again, it wasn’t nearly his best day, but going forward, history tells us not to judge Thompson on spot duty. His best performances have been where he’s been told all week that he’s going to start. That should be the case this week, and perhaps the next.
YOU JUST NEED TWO ARMS AND AN ATTITUDE: And having sprinter speed don’t hurt. It was Byrd’s turn to ride the targeted receiver carousel, and he finally broke out with a huge game. I could scarcely believe my eyes when he caught several passes in a row without a drop – it’s fair to say that Byrd has never been the most consistent pass-catcher on the planet, even with should-be-caught balls. Saturday, he was flying all around Brighthouse Networks Stadium, unleashed from the wicker cage that had previously had him trapped, singing “Malaguena.”
IT’S COMING BACK AROUND AGAIN: Remember over the past three years where it always seemed like USC had that big defensive play in the bag? Like it was just waiting to pull it out on some unsuspecting sucker that thought it had a chance to win? Only two games after Steve Spurrier and Lorenzo Ward complained that the Gamecocks weren’t getting any turnovers, USC took four from UCF. Considering the final score, take your pick to which was the biggest. I’ll say Victor Hampton’s pick in the second quarter, at the USC 35, when the Gamecocks already trailed 10-0 and another series had conked out.
WHEN IN DOUBT: The game should have been over, but wasn’t, and after the Gamecocks’ Incredibly Shrinking Secondary gave up another long pass to lead to a touchdown, USC only had a three-point lead and knew just like everyone else did that UCF was about to try an onside kick. The ball bounced into the mitts of Bruce Ellington (who else?) who not only caught it, but boogied 31 yards with it. Finally, USC could kneel on it.
W: USC’s fans grumbled, and rightfully so, about how USC isn’t exactly playing like a team that was voted preseason Top 10. Folks, it may be time to simply sit back and wait for the result. Why? Because a win may be the best thing out of every Saturday. The Gamecocks aren’t playing their best, but they’re winning. That counts for something, and this team has not yet showed that it has the lock-down want-to of its predecessors.
WE GOT A WILDSHAW DOWN: Actually had someone complain to me via Twitter yesterday that this was why USC didn’t need to schedule a game like UCF on the road – two players were injured already. I’ll let that sink in, but I get the frustration. While it could have happened anywhere, it happened at UCF, and it happened to Shaw (again) and to Brandon Wilds. Both freak things (Shaw doesn’t like to slide into contact, and Spurrier doesn’t like it, either. Wilds just landed wrong) and both taking out players that the Gamecocks were depending on. Why this isn’t in the Ugly segment – Spurrier said that the injuries aren’t season-long (although from updating Cedrick Cooper’s dislocated elbow every day, who knows how long Wilds’ will take to recover) and USC has options, good options, to replace. But it’s disheartening to see any kid go down that hard and immediately know that it’s a bad one.
THAT’S WORKING, SO DON’T DO IT: Shaw’s hurt, but Davis had only touched the ball once on the first drive, so as Thompson warmed up, the Davis playbook opened. Sure enough, first two plays, twin 7-yard carries for Davis. Needing to settle in Thompson, needing to restore the Gamecocks’ confidence, USC then decided not to run Davis. Incomplete, 8-yard pass (to Davis), Thompson tries to run left end for a loss. The next drive was seven pass attempts on seven plays before a punt. The drive after that was one Davis rush for no gain, two pass attempts, Davis for 5, two pass attempts, punt. The final drive of the half was a pass (to Davis), pass, pass (to Davis), seven pass attempts. Again, not in the Ugly segment because the offensive coaches figured they might want to give the ball to the guy that was averaging 8 yards per carry, and they did in the second half. But GEEEEEEEZ.
IT IS WHAT IT IS: I’m at the point where I’m just going to expect disruption from Jadeveon Clowney as the only constant of his season. And that is what he’s supposed to do, with the big plays occurring as a result of that. Big man says he’s fighting bone spurs, to which a walking boot attests, and also said he fought a stomach bug on Friday, which Spurrier and Ward said. Just seems that USC is lucky to be able to keep him on the field, and whatever plays he makes will be a bonus. Heisman? At this rate, perhaps an honorable mention All-SEC could come around. For whatever reason, the production is just not there.
AS AUTOMATIC AS MAYO ON A TOMATO SANDWICH: USC was called for illegal substitution on Saturday. Pick up your jaws, which dropped in stunned silence, and we’ll continue.
RIGHT THIS WAY, SIR: The Gamecocks gave up another long punt return, and had a special-teams snafu when a bad snap nearly got away from Tyler Hull. To his credit, he stuck with it and tried to get something; the punt was fielded by a down lineman and rumbled 13 yards backward for a net total of 4 yards. Pick up your jaws, which dropped in stunned silence, and we’ll continue.
I GOT YOUR TARGET: Much was made about the new rule before the season, but USC, like many teams, simply agreed to it and figured it was no huge deal unless it happened to the Gamecocks. It did. Brison Williams, who had a pretty awful day, made a terrific play in denying a receiver the ball, crashing into him at the point of the catch with his shoulder. But the flags came out, and either way, USC was going to be punished. The officials made the right call by keeping him in the game, but it was still a 15-yard penalty – for a play that had no foul. As Hampton said, “How are we supposed to play?” All USC can do is try to not let it happen again. And then bite the collective knuckles when a new rule prohibiting tackles unless the offensive player has at least 15 positive yards on the play is passed.
THERE’S ALWAYS THE CFA: Georgia beat LSU yesterday, and while anything can still happen, it was most likely the death knell to USC’s fledgling SEC championship hopes. The Gamecocks can still have a terrific season, and could even win a national championship in Atlanta despite not playing for the SEC title. I mean, they award that to the winner of the Chick-fil-A Bowl, right?
FLAG DAY: USC was penalized seven times on Saturday. That was more than UCF, which couldn’t start a defensive possession without an offside call. The Gamecocks’ gaffes ranged from the usual illegal sub to Corey Robinson’s personal foul, which pushed USC out of field-goal range. Never want to see more shooting in the foot when there’s already been a game full of it.
BUTTER OR JAM?: Give credit to USC’s opponents. They’re lining up big, fast wide receivers who are running slants past USC’s linebackers and secondary, knowing darned well that the Gamecocks can’t stop them. That’s going to keep happening, because USC isn’t going to get bigger and stronger overnight. What can’t keep happening is the flat-out disgusting coverage. USC was often standing flat-footed in gaps as receivers ran right through. Missed tackles led to more yards after the catch than in a teenager’s Madden marathon. It’s not just a plan for opponents anymore, it’s a blueprint. Big-time plays on the interceptions, but just go back and watch how badly Williams, Sharrod Golightly, Kadetrix Marcus and company can’t keep a receiver in front of them. This is a problem that isn’t going away.
MOTLEY CRUE SINGS: (See if you can guess what song I’m referring to). USC ahead 28-10, 10 minutes to play. The game should be over. Instead, the Gamecocks have to get Ellington’s onside kick recovery to walk out with a three-point win. USC just can’t step on a throat. No way that game should have been remotely as close as it was, yet, it was. Shades of every other year of USC football.
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