David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s loss to Tennessee.
TENNESSEE 45, SOUTH CAROLINA 42 (OT)
BORN TO DO IT: Good God, is Pharoh Cooper ever a football player. He’s also the one player on that team who, more than any other, deserved a hug, an earnest promise to never let that happen again, a ride out of the stadium on shoulders, if not a private helicopter to ferry him back to his dorm. If the NCAA wouldn’t give him the Gurley, I’d have sent him a pizza last night. He did everything possible to win that game, playing quarterback and throwing for a touchdown on the same play that beat Clemson last year – immediately after Brian Randolph tried to separate his head from his neck on a 21-yard catch over the middle. He rushed three times for 23 yards. He caught 11 balls for 233 yards, including an 85-yard pitch-and-catch where USC’s stubborn attempts at hitting the deep post finally paid off. That’s a single-game school record, putting him above three dudes named Jeffery, Rice and Sharpe. He was involved in four touchdowns, becoming the second player in 10 games at USC to throw, catch and rush for a TD in one game (that last guy is having his visage chiseled into stone on USC’s Mount Rushmore of amazing quarterbacks). He even recovered an onside kick that should have iced the game. Cooper would have been available to write this piece but he was busy finalizing Richland County’s plans for the looming election.
WEDGE: USC rushed 39 times for 248 yards, a healthy 6.4 per carry, and got its three best running backs involved. Handing the ball off sure does seem to work a lot.
AT LEAST THAT’S FIXED: A solution so simple it’s a wonder it wasn’t thought of before – it’s very, very tough for players to return kickoffs for touchdowns if the ball is too far into the end zone to get a good return. Landon Ard, since he returned to the role, is kicking footballs deep into the letters etched on the ends of the field. Much more preferable than him getting familiar with the backs of returners’ jerseys.
GREAT, BUT : There is nothing wrong with USC’s offense except it can’t put up these gargantuan numbers when it absolutely has to. That’s four times now where the Gamecocks have had a chance to win or tie the game, or really just run the clock, and they haven’t gotten it done. Not sure who draws the most blame – continuing to rely on the pass when the run is working, the passing suddenly not as consistent, the line not picking up blitzes and the quarterback not dumping the ball to avoid them are primary suspects. All are playing their parts in what’s becoming a horrifying and familiar script. Over 600 yards and another 42 points, and still a loss? This is what has to be driving Steve Spurrier insane. He finally, after all these years, has an offense that is doing what his kids at Florida did every season, and he’s 4-5. Boy, when that vicious cycle sinks its teeth into your hindparts, it’s tough to shake it loose, isn’t it?
HERE WE GO AGAIN: Pick a part of what was the worst aspect of USC’s latest defensive clunker. Six hundred forty-five yards given up, nearly double what Tennessee was averaging coming in. Forty-five points, including three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Not one sack against the worst offensive line in the league, one that had allowed its former quarterback to get pummeled 29 times (Note: Josh Dobbs is much more of a runner than Justin Worley, who would stay back there till doomsday and get hit, so maybe that’s a little skewed. USC had to spy on Dobbs to keep him honest – not that it helped). The same standard runs up the middle that they can’t stop. Never mind, I got it. It was that even with two two-touchdown leads in the fourth, nobody was confident it would hold. Nobody. Not even after Tennessee rather foolishly threw when it could run all day, and Brison Williams intercepted. Not even when Spurrier got incredibly lucky when he continued to throw the ball, and Dylan Thompson ran 20 yards on third-and-18, and the light bulb finally switched on to run it, and Wilds broke a 70-yard touchdown. Not even when USC forced a no-timeout situation with 85 yards to go in 83 seconds to tie. As of this writing, there are 18 former USC defensive players in the NFL. Fourteen played at USC in the last five seasons. It’s like finding out there’s a sequel to “Citizen Kane” but made 30 years later with no Orson Welles or the sled.
PINCHING AREA BETWEEN EYEBROWS: Thought we understood. USC’s defense is rotten. Nothing is going to repair it this season. That’s why, as unfair as it is, the offense has to pick it up. Sustain clock-eating drives. Run the ball. Keep that defense off the field.
So in the fourth quarter:
* 35-21 USC, Tennessee throws for some reason and Williams picks it off, USC runs three times and has to punt. Didn’t get a first down, but the right idea. Tennessee scores because USC’s defense. 35-28.
* Got to run that clock, now. Got to. Thompson throws low and incomplete to Nick Jones (route was there, was just thrown low). Will Sport false-starts. Thompson sacked. Thompson runs through a lane big enough for 12 fire trucks, pump-faking all the way, and gets 20 yards on third-and-18. “Hey, that works,” thinks the Visored One, and he calls a running play. Wilds 70 yards, touchdown. 42-28.
* Tennessee scores because USC’s defense. 42-35.
* Mike Davis run. Davis run. Tennessee calls timeout after each. On third-and-4, it should be two-down territory. First down, game over. Thompson rolls out, and is sacked. Tennessee timeout, and now USC has to punt on fourth-and-12.
* Tennessee scores because USC’s defense. 42-42.
* Tennessee only manages a field goal in overtime. All USC needs is the automatic Elliott Fry (not kicking into the wind this time), and that’s as a bailout. The run game has been there all night. Thompson back to pass, sacked. Thompson back to pass, sacked. Thompson back to pass, scrambles, incomplete. Fry on for a (choke) FIFTY-EIGHT-YARD FIELD GOAL. Of course he missed it because he is not Luke Cage.
* This all came after USC got a defensive stop for the first time all year, and in the best situation possible – on fourth-and-goal at the 1. If there ever was a time to help out the defense and say “Thank you,” it was then. Plus, you’re in your own end zone. So much can go wrong so the best thing you can do is hand the ball off and depend on your line and tailback’s legs. Thompson threw long for Damiere Byrd, on a deep post that hardly ever works because Byrd doesn’t catch the ball well and Thompson can’t hit it consistently. Intercepted. “Thanks, defense, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”
DT: I feel really, really awful for Dylan Thompson. He really is trying his best. You can’t be someone you’re not, and he’s not Connor Shaw nor a perfect quarterback. He’s a great kid with a strong arm who is going to most likely end up with the greatest passing season in school history (he’s only 619 yards away from it) but will be known as the guy who was at the helm The Year The Fun Stopped. Is that entirely his fault? No way. Not his fault that his defense can’t stop a plastic grocery bag blowing in the breeze. Not his fault his coach continues to insist that he’s Peyton Manning and can make any throw in any situation instead of turning to his stud tailbacks. Not his fault that he, at heart, is a nice guy that follows the rules but may be better served to say, “What’s that play he called in? Nah, let’s do this instead,” because it probably never crosses his mind to do so, although it ain’t like he’s going to get pulled from the game even if he did. The only thing I fault him for is not being aware of the situation at times, particularly when it matters most. Coming out for overtime, getting a pass play to run and only needing a field goal to tie, Thompson has to know right then, first sign of trouble, get rid of the ball. Gun it to the kind old lady in the scarf in Section 308. Afterward, head to the sideline, call timeout, whatever, just tell coach that the pass isn’t there and maybe he’ll listen. Whatever you do, cannot take a sack there. He did it twice.
DUCKING: Spurrier is the head coach. On Tuesday, he made it real clear that it’s not one unit losing games (although it obviously is), because they win and lose as a team. I thought then, “That’s the head coach saying what he has to say. He has to take the blame for it because he’s the head coach, although everyone knows damn well it’s the defense that is really to blame.” It was a very strong move. So then he comes in and doesn’t take questions during his post-game press conference. That reeks of ducking the blame, of leaving his other coaches and players to answer for it, of doing the exact opposite of what he did on Tuesday. It was a bad move at a bad time. Hey, I know you’re ticked off, but you still have to answer for it. He answered after 48-7 and 56-6. He’s answered about so many things over 10 years that have been rather trivial. If this was a discussion about former point guards, he’d still be in there.
Then again, here’s a theory – he was so shocked by what had happened, and he knows that now he’s going to have to make some very difficult decisions, that he couldn’t think straight. Not excusing it, but he had to get somewhere and clear his head, not make any snap judgments. We’ll know more on this during his teleconference this afternoon.
IT’S A LONG WAY TO THE TOP AND LONGER BACK DOWN: It’s not so much what has happened but what could. Is this where Spurrier decides to call it quits, before his legacy gets further from those 11-win seasons? Is this where, because the defense is so, so bad, he’s forced to make a change, and that in turn affects a very nice recruiting class that is committed? Do the players start quitting on each other, sniping behind each other’s backs while there are games left to play?
The past three years seem farther away with every loss, especially with gut punches as painful as these. Everything went so right in each of those three that the thought was the corner was finally turned, and there was no going back. This is where USC desired to be for so many years, and it was going to stay.
Nobody wants to go back to those days of poor-but-proud, where you’ll stand up for your team through thick and thin but know that, at heart, you’re not very good. Everybody is hoping that this is just one bad year, but that hope is fading as the realization that this may last for a while gets brighter. As many improvements as this athletic program has made over the past decade, it’s football that drives it – South Carolina wants to be in the national spotlight, and there are only a few sports that will make it stay there.
There are three games left. Who knows what can happen? Perhaps it does turn around and USC wins all three and goes to a nice bowl game.
Now seems as good a time as any to remind all of you that the nationally second-ranked women’s basketball team has an exhibition at 3 p.m. Sunday. See you there.