Full disclosure — none of this matters if Marquez North doesn’t make a SportsCenter Top 10 catch. Somehow, he wormed one hand free through really good coverage from Ahmad Christian and caught the biggest play of the game. That’s dropped, picked, knocked away, whatever, we’re not talking about the rest of this, because it would have probably been, “Well, they still won.”
But the Gamecocks didn’t, and that’s what raised the questions.
What was going on offensively in the fourth quarter?
Be it not going for the jugular at the start of the fourth quarter with a 21-17 lead by trying to pass three consecutive times from the Tennessee 45-yard-line; or coming out in pass formation for two plays at its own 12 in a 21-20 game where Connor Shaw was pressured and sandwiched between two defenders on his last play of the game; or the curious punt after two timeouts?
A unit that had carved up defenses all year was out of sync. Some big plays were hit early, some big runs were hit late, but when USC needed to grind clock and escape with a one-point win, USC didn’t do it.
The punt call drew the most attention. With 2:55 to play, USC faced fourth-and-2 from its 26. Tennessee called timeout to let USC think about it.
Steve Spurrier had choices. Punt, and hope the defense holds. Go for it, fail, and be on a short field in a field-goal-wins game, but most likely have time on the clock to try and get in position for your own field goal. Go for it, make it, and be able to run the clock down pretty close to zeroes because the Volunteers were out of timeouts.
He decided to go for it, didn’t like what he saw from the UT defense, and called timeout. The offense re-took the field, and again Spurrier didn’t like what he saw, and again he called timeout.
Then the punting unit took the field.
“We thought we had a little bit of a hole there and we had a different play called,” Spurrier said. “Looking back, I always tell myself to go for those, but you look stupid if you leave them on the 30-yard-line, and our defense was playing well.”
Hindsight’s always 20-20. And again, USC did force a third-and-10 afterward that had a great play negate it.
But on fourth-and-2, Mike Davis was available to tote the ball. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry on Saturday and has been known to pick up a fourth-and-short — he moved the pile 7 yards last week on fourth-and-1. And if it doesn’t work, UT has a short field, USC saves a timeout, has time left to maybe mount a game-winning drive, with a strong-armed passer who has won a game before with a long throw downfield.
There’s no way of knowing what would have happened. We all just know what did happen.