David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s Duck Commander Independence Bowl win over Miami.
SOUTH CAROLINA 24, MIAMI 21
FAY-ROW: It needs to start now. Pharoh Cooper For Heisman. South Carolina has been noticeably lacking at promoting its players for awards in the preseason, but that needs to stop. Consensus first-team All-SEC receivers off a 7-6 team don’t come around every day, much less ones that make plays happen from the Wildcat or on punt return. All he did on Saturday was catch nine balls for 170 yards and a touchdown; set up the game-icing touchdown with a leaping catch where he out-jumped the defensive back, caught the ball and held on while falling backwards at the speed of sound; and completely flip the game when he caught the pass that became the TD. And that was all while playing one of his worst games – he dropped a TD, lost another pass that hit him in the hands and fumbled twice. The man makes the “Oh my LORD” plays of Alshon and Sidney, combines it with the hands of Ko and Kenny and adds the field awareness of George and Marcus. Obviously, his first name puts him in a class all by himself, and if the Gamecocks are going to improve next year, he needs to be the featured player.
FINALLY: Yeah, that was USC’s defense that was standing up and making big plays (although there were still the familiar “USC Defensive Moments, 2014”). The Gamecocks blitzed and made Brad Kaaya uncomfortable, bidding “Bye, Felicia” to him after a horrid first quarter. They (mostly) made tackles in open space. They got two turnovers. They grabbed shoelaces, jerseys, braids, mouthpieces, whatever to get ball-carriers on the ground. And I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest defensive play of the season, a ball popped out of Duke Johnson’s mitts and recovered to set up the game-icing touchdown. That came from Gerald S. Dixon, from Rock Hill, South Carolina, AKA Football City, USA. You know what they say, as Jadeveon Clowney two years ago can attest – big-time players from big-time cities make big-time plays in big-time situations.
WELL DONE: As usual, Dylan Thompson made some great plays and had some that could have been better. But he didn’t turn the ball over, and after taking a boatload of crap from fans who never could see how if he didn’t have to be perfect every game, he would be deified, he shoved it all behind and won the game. He was very strong on Saturday, hit because he wouldn’t throw the ball away but also spinning out of a tackle, running to the side, setting his feet and throwing for a touchdown on a busted play. I can’t think of any more fitting way for the season to end than Thompson, who took too many sacks this year, to stay upright for just the one second necessary to run out the clock, after running – yes, running – for the game-icing TD. No, he wasn’t perfect this year and he wasn’t his predecessor. But Dylan Thompson had a very good year, and will hold a USC record for quite some time. Here’s hoping he comes back to USC some day in some position, because the university, not just the football team, needs a gem like it had in the young man from Boiling Springs.
DON”T CALL HIM JON BOY: Way to have yourself a game, Jonathan Walton. He only had four tackles, but 1.5 were for loss and he had one interception and broke up another key pass. He’s had a pretty good season and when the Gamecocks needed him most – i.e., placing his helmet into Johnson’s kidneys – he was there. The defense has had its problems this year but quality linebackers won’t be on the checklist for next season.
RAGE KAGE: Shaq Roland succumbed to himself, so K.J. Brent stepped in. Caught first downs. Sealed the edges on other receivers’ catches, including taking out two Hurricanes on Cooper’s TD catch-and-run. He made himself into a starter next year.
THERE’S HOPE: USC’s fourth-quarter meltdowns were 99.9 percent the fault of the defense, but there were always those strange offensive calls in the middle of the torchings. Steve Spurrier finally learned. He ran the ball when he had to, even when the odds weren’t great because Miami’s run defense was extremely good. He played the “smart” move, not the “move that nobody’s expecting.” Mike Davis got that crucial first down to keep the clock moving. They figured out exactly how many seconds Thompson needed to stay up before going down so they wouldn’t have to snap the ball again. Suddenly, there wasn’t enough time for a comeback.
SPEAKING OF: The run game was going nowhere after the second play of the game, where Davis was nearly punted into Monroe due to the don’t-bother-blocking USC offensive line. Spurrier immediately figured, “Well, that ain’t goin’ nowhere” and began passing. I’ve hammered him in this space before for not grinding the clock and keeping the defense off the field, but this time, it was the right call to immediately take to the air. USC’s next five plays were passes.
STREAKS: Despite the overall season, USC won a bowl game, its school-record fourth in a row. The Gamecocks are the only team in the SEC that can say it’s won four straight bowls. Spurrier has never had a losing season at USC, and only one in his career (at Duke in his first year). USC has had seven straight winning seasons and 11 straight seasons of at least a .500 finish. Seems a long time ago that Gamecock fans were sitting around a leftover Christmas ham hoping for Clemson to lose so they could enjoy the bowl season, don’t it?
W: The season was a disappointment. It’s bizarre that the Gamecocks beat Georgia, Florida and Miami this year and it was still a bad year. But they won their last game, and now everyone can feel good for a while. There are problems. There may still be some coaching decisions to be made. The ever-spinning carousel of recruiting continues to rotate. But USC won, and even if it’s only for a day, all those in garnet can enjoy a few months where their mood isn’t determined by a Saturday result.
LOOKAHEAD: The 2015 season will have Cooper and a fleet of tailbacks. The right side of the line and the center return, plus a cyborg at tight end. The defense loses J.T. Surratt, Brison Williams, Sharrod Golightly and Kadetrix Marcus, but has a lot of talent coming back. Place-kicker, kickoff specialist, returners will be back. A lot to count on.
MIKE D: Mike Davis had a very good season and a very good career, but his legacy will be one of hot and cold. When he wanted to, Davis could be the best back in college football. He could out-run chasing DBs, run over LBs and linemen, make a cut that would shred Achilles tendons from coast to coast. But there were so many times where he wasn’t on the field for crucial downs – such as Saturday, when USC should have had a first down inside the Miami 40, but a referee didn’t blow the play dead quick enough for Thompson to have the forward progress, and then USC went with a shotgun snap to Brandon Wilds for a trip into a brick wall. Davis always seemed to be nursing some minor injury, which was especially hard to swallow considering his predecessor, Marcus Lattimore, would run barefoot through a 100-yard trench of iodine-soaked broken glass just to play one more down. It seemed fitting that Davis finished a mere 18 yards short of his second straight 1,000-yard season, leaving George Rogers as the only Gamecock to ever do it multiple times. Now, it should be noted that Davis got the last first down of the season, the one that cinched the game, and he ran hard while knowing the Hurricanes were going to use him as a backstop. Gamecocks would have set themselves up for another fourth-quarter Oh-Jesus moment if not for those. Hell of a player, hell of a career, but we’ll always wonder what might have been had he had the want-to of Lattimore.
BRINGIN’ THE HEAT: Loved Lorenzo Ward’s game plan of sending blitzers at Kaaya. For the first time all year, a quarterback was shaky because of USC’s defensive pressure. But I just have to say – it took 13 games to realize this? Especially when the last game, the big rivalry one, you know, had a QB back there who was playing on one leg? A constant blitz wouldn’t have worked then?
AND THE BEAT GOES ON: A reader e-mailed me this once. They claimed that Spurrier always screwed up two-minute drills because he’s never had to do them – he was usually winning at Florida, and at USC, it was either winning big or losing big. Saturday, it raised its head one more time. There was time at the end of the first half to get into field-goal range. Davis ran on first down to the 50, then USC didn’t burn a timeout, despite having two and only 17 seconds left. That burned three to four seconds before Thompson took the snap and fired incomplete, and even when he completed a pass to Cooper for a 9-yard gain, it was way, way too short for Elliott Fry to have a reasonable chance at a field goal – a 58-yarder would be tough for some NFL kickers. Didn’t come back to hurt the Gamecocks, but man, does that need to be addressed in the offseason.
CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT: Alan Knott had a pretty good season at center. He just always seemed to save his bad snaps for when USC could least afford it, such as on third-and-short when timing meant saving the running back from being dropped behind the line, or when Thompson had a perfect pass play drawn up for someone over the middle that nearly got intercepted because he had to go to his right to corral the snap.
THE (ALMOST) MELTDOWN: Miami scored a touchdown in less than two minutes after USC made it a 10-point game with 4:13 to go. The final play was when two defensive players were covering each other on the front edge of the end zone while Phillip Dorsett was all by his lonesome in the corner. It was all set up for yet another failure, until Miami kicked deep instead of onsides, and USC got the crucial first down. Everything turned out fine. But I know I wasn’t the only one thinking/writing, “Here they go again.”
THROWN AWAY: USC won the game, but not for lack of trying to give it away with foolish, stupid mistakes. Those lob-screen passes that could have been intercepted. Bryson Allen-Williams didn’t play the ball off the foot on a rugby-style punt and hit the underside of the punter’s leg (it was just a grazing, but he hit him, and it turned fourth-and-6 into fourth-and-1 and a go-for-it and a first down). Jordan Diggs, after a great stop of Johnson, stood over Johnson for a completely unnecessary taunt and while I agree it was way reactionary to flag him for that and not flag anybody else for the pushing and shoving that was going on, Diggs has to be smarter than that.
LOOKAHEAD: USC doesn’t lose much on defense, but it loses some good players off a bad defense, so is that a good thing? There is no definite answer at quarterback going into spring practice, and losing offensive linemen out of the recruiting class is really going to hurt the line’s depth. While USC has nine early enrollees, it’s always a gamble getting junior-college players, especially because they’re going to have to contribute right away.
The main concern, though, is what happens between now and Feb. 4, National Signing Day.
USC has to keep as much of its committed class as it can, and do it through a month of rival recruiters telling the players that Spurrier isn’t going to be around much longer. Spurrier said that he’s keeping his current staff through recruiting, which basically means that he won’t make any changes through Signing Day, but then he what? Might? Will? Won’t?
That’s also information that rival recruiters will use against USC, painting USC as dishonest by keeping recruiters and relationships in place until signatures are on the dotted line. And it paints USC into a corner – do you keep assistant coaches after a bad season, hoping that things improve (and thus risk having a second straight bad season)? Or do they keep everybody until Signing Day, get the signatures and then start cutting bait, telling the recruits that they waited until it was official before making moves?
There are problems. No denying that. Spurrier is sticking around, but he didn’t help anything by saying he’d be around 2-3 years, then backtracking to 4-5 years. Nobody believes that and sees it for what it was – covering his behind to save recruits after a few decommitted. After a winning, but nowhere near as good as expected, season, will he think that the heights he reached from 2011-13 be possible again?
It all starts on defense. That brings up the questions again. Was it youth or coaching this year? Get recruits, keep the same coaches, you’re saying it was youth and hoping it gets better. It’s a gamble that it will get better in another year rather than bringing in new coaches and trusting them to install a new system – when the market for hiring new coaches might be a lot smaller than it currently is.
Lot of questions. Some may be answered after Signing Day, some may be answered by the spring game. Some may not be answered until Sept. 3.
Personally, I think it’s a case of simply learning how to tackle.
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