David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s loss to Clemson.
NO. 23 CLEMSON 35, SOUTH CAROLINA 17
THE PLAYMAKER: Pharoh Cooper may have to contact Michael Irvin during the offseason and ask to borrow that nickname. The man produces whenever the ball is in his hands. His touchdown run was outstanding, reading his blocks (Will Sport, Clayton Stadnik and Jerell Adams each did excellent jobs holding their end and clearing the way) and giving a high leg kick when he cleared the second level. He had two catches for 45 yards. He caught a punt and even completed both of his pass attempts, one a 20-yarder that K.J. Brent neatly plucked over and from behind a leaping defensive back. He did all that nursing a set of sore ribs. The decision that needs to be made going forward – will USC develop Connor Mitch or Michael Scarnecchia during spring practice and risk a Tommy Beecher situation going into 2015, or do they work on Cooper’s arm strength and reads and try to make him a Deshaun Watson equivalent in 2015? He says he wouldn’t feel comfortable throwing the ball a lot, but I’m sure he wouldn’t turn down the chance if they offered to display him at the most prominent position on the team.
THE LIMIT: Skai Moore continues to have a terrific season and if all goes well, it could be him bumping USC’s Top 10 in career tackles. The sophomore had another team-high performance on Saturday with 10 tackles and returned his third interception in two games for 22 yards. Moore’s seven career picks has him already challenging Bo Davies for USC’s career record (14). He plays hard all the time, he stays in his lanes and makes his stops. If the Gamecocks’ defense had 10 more like No. 10, you wouldn’t have to read the “Bad” and “Ugly” installments every week.
THE PUNTING MAN: Tyler Hull’s overall day was average, five punts for an average of 39 yards with a long of 48. But his first two kicks were outstanding. His first was gobbled by USC’s coverage team at the 3-yard-line. The second was stopped at the 1-inch line. Each of those possessions turned into nothing for Clemson (although the first was due to a missed field goal). He did his job and did it well.
HOUSE CALL COMING?: The Gamecocks’ ineptitude in returning kickoffs has been long documented, but Shon Carson had a good day on Saturday. His two returns for 49 yards, one after a fumble he recovered, were much better than usual.
LEFT HIS MARK: It’s been a rough season for Dylan Thompson. He came in with two strikes against him because he was the guy replacing The Guy, and that hardly ever turns out well in any sport – or really in any of life’s endeavors. Despite the defense resembling something I won’t even say all year, it was Thompson that received far too much of fans’ criticisms and complaints, as if it was his fault he could build a two-touchdown lead in the fourth and the other guys couldn’t hold it. He kept his head up, played pretty well all year and didn’t return fire at the venom. Dylan Thompson will grow to be a finer man than he already is, and now he has a piece of history to take with him – he’s the new USC single-season passing yardage leader, and that record will stand for quite some time.
D-PLORABLE: I could lump all of the defense’s problems under one category, but that would gloss over just how atrocious the defense was Saturday. I’ll start with the face-melting obvious – USC allowed a quarterback playing on a torn ACL to have all the time he wanted to pick his receiver and throw. Against a QB who they knew damn well wasn’t going to run, and matched up against a bad offensive line, the Gamecocks recorded zero sacks and zero hurries. How is that even possible? The heat should have been brought every play until Watson threw up his hands and said he didn’t want to play anymore. Look at the play where Watson went right and dove at the goal line. He did not want to run. Knew it was going to hurt. He took off on a stiff trot and USC still missed three tackles and let him get 9 yards. Remember the 2011 rivalry game? Stephon Gilmore went in on the corner blitz on Clemson’s first play and knocked Tajh Boyd silly. Yeah, he got the ball off, but it was incomplete, and it was more a message play than anything – “All day, baby,” Gilmore was telling Boyd. That should have been the first play on Saturday, with a T.J. Gurley or a Sharrod Golightly, somebody who has been known to come at an opponent with a forearm full of fury. Instead, Watson was allowed to get comfortable and then recline in an easy chair while cocooned in the pocket like a caterpillar, plenty of room to find his receivers.
UNWRAPPED: The Gamecocks haven’t been able to tackle all season, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that they couldn’t on Saturday. Yet, Lorenzo Ward said that USC couldn’t practice its usual tackling drills because the Gamecocks had to go inside a couple of days last week. I get standing up for your players, but c’mon. Just say what we all know – “We recruited a bunch of guys who we thought could tackle, and they can’t, and we tried to teach them during the year, and it didn’t work. Two missed days of not doing tackling drills didn’t affect them because 200 days of practicing nothing but tackling wouldn’t help.”
SO LONG, SUCKAS: Artavis Scott is going to be a superstar player by the time he leaves Clemson, and we all saw that on his untouched jet-sweep runs for touchdowns. The problem is that USC treated it like it was a wunderkind play every single time. The Tigers have run that play all year. USC should have known that when Scott was in the game, especially with a gimpy quarterback, that it was a good chance Clemson would try to play the edges. USC’s defensive containment on the ends was non-existent and the Tigers came up with the brilliant idea to keep doing what was working.
REALLY?: Wayne Gallman rushed for 191 yards. His previous high this year was 106 – against Wake Forest.
MAN, THOSE COULD HAVE HELPED: USC’s defensive front let Gallman get one toe over the goal line when it had the Tigers on their one-inch line, before it dragged him back. That would have been a safety. T.J. Holloman couldn’t get an interception on a bad pass from Watson. Two plays later, Scott went around left end for a touchdown. In a recent series where USC dominated because of turnovers, those were two huge missed opportunities.
YEAH, THEY WERE GOOD, BUT : Clemson’s defense was all it was cracked up to be. The pass-rush was relentless and after Vic Beasley knocked the ball out of Thompson’s hand and recovered the fumble, Thompson was very nervous, wouldn’t set his feet and missed a lot of wide-open throws. The run game was also stuffed, which was expected due to the Tigers’ physical defensive front. That’s all certainly understandable, if not pleasant. Yet, the Gamecocks weren’t done. They were down 28-10 in the third and there was still hope, especially after Thompson found Cooper for a big gain and then Mike Davis peeled off a beautiful 12-yard run to the 2. First-and-goal at the 2, Football 101. No matter how good the defense is, you pound that sucker up the middle three times, and maybe a fourth. Your center gets one good push and that’s half the battle. First down, Thompson’s pass batted away. Second down, Thompson tries to find Damiere Byrd, a small receiver with limited room to showcase his speed and who has never been known as a guy with great hands, and it’s incomplete. Third down, finally there’s a run, and it’s Thompson instead of Davis or Byrd or David Williams or Carson or anybody who has proven their mobility. Fourth down, a pass to Shaq Roland, who again couldn’t get open and ran a bad route. First down, two yards to go, zero points. Odds are it wouldn’t have mattered with a touchdown, since Clemson still would have led by 11 and could always run the sweep to Scott again. Guess we’ll never know.
DON’T DREAM IT’S OVER: It was 2,191 days of pure glory. Every time you saw orange or a Tiger decal on a passing truck, you could throw two fingers, then three, then four, then five, and you knew there was nothing they could ever say that would trump what you could do non-verbally. They could preach all they wanted about going to more prestigious bowls (that USC, by conference affiliation, couldn’t have played in anyway) or conference titles or the massive lead in the overall series, but for five long years, no Clemson fan could do anything but grit their teeth and admit the Gamecocks were better. Last night, even if you were thinking of those five or sticking up just one finger as you passed orange on the way home, it didn’t feel nearly as good. Here’s to hoping 2009-13 isn’t just remembered as a chapter someday, because there were so much of the same that followed.
WHAT NOW?: I’m the one who asked, because it had to be asked. South Carolina wins Saturday, and it’s a question that can wait until after the bowl game because there would be a month of goodwill beforehand.
But the Gamecocks didn’t, so I asked, “Steve, do you anticipate having to make any changes on the staff?”
His answer: “Aw, this is not the time for all that.”
The rumors that have been circulating all season are now coming close to being answered. I think it’s a given that USC is going to have to make some coaching changes after a season that began with so much promise dissolved into a 6-6 year. When those changes will come, I don’t know and neither does anyone else. In 2008, Spurrier fired John Hunt the day after the Clemson loss. By 2 p.m. on Sunday, nobody had been let go, so there was that.
Obviously, USC’s problems this year were mostly on the defensive side of the ball. I believe some changes have to be made to save face. Who knows where those are judged to be the most glaring, and the most affordable – USC has to walk the line between a bad performance and holding onto recruits that signed under those particular coaches, and that’s something that Spurrier will have to make the final call on.
If Spurrier makes no move between now and the bowl game, I believe it’s an indication that he hasn’t made up his mind on what he’s going to do next year. Yes, I personally believe he’s not going to retire and will be back, but there are maybe two people in the world who know what he’s really going to do, and that’s he and his wife. If he keeps the same staff for the bowl game, it says to me two things – 1. There’s one more game to have a good performance and then we’ll evaluate. 2. If I’m leaving anyway, what’s the point of getting rid of somebody now when everybody is likely to lose their jobs under the new guy?
There is the rather minor-by-comparison bowl announcement (please, to any higher power that is listening, do not send USC to Birmingham) and that will come in a week. Right now, I’ll continue to watch my inbox and my text messages for any announcements.
Saturday afternoon was not the time, but the time is here now. Unpleasant but necessary.
Man, that SEC East champs prediction and No. 9 ranking sure seems like a century ago.