David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s loss to Kentucky.
KENTUCKY 26, SOUTH CAROLINA 22
A GOLD LINING?
There is no joy to be had from Connor Mitch going down for at least half the season with a separated shoulder. Mitch is the most talented quarterback on the roster, the most ready, and that’s why he won the starting job. And you never want to see a kid taken out, much less on a play where he was doing everything he could to help his team.
But the situation could be a whole lot worse. Don’t believe me, look up the name DeMasi in the archives.
Perry Orth played very well until that back-breaking pick. He was calm, poised, made his throws and worked the near-comeback. It’s certainly not his fault that he was told to run plays in the red zone that turned out not to work a quarter as well as the ones that got the Gamecocks to the red zone. I always heard that he knew the offense the best of all the quarterbacks, but he didn’t have the physical package that Mitch did. I think what Orth lacks in overall talent can be made up by what USC has around him – he can’t run that well so let the backs do it for him. And as long as Pharoh Cooper stays healthy, Orth will always have one can’t-miss target.
There’s that other, too. I want to make it real clear that this is my personal opinion, that I’m not taking one of my inside folks’ words and putting it here. I never got the sense that Mitch really commanded the team, that he had every one of those guys willing to lay down in traffic for him. You saw that, no question, with Dylan Thompson and Connor Shaw and Stephen Garcia. Orth, I believe, has that quality. This team will follow him.
Where it ends up is the mystery.
Sean Kelly and Skai Moore are trading body blows for team MVP this year. The Gamecocks are getting consistent great production from their punter. Who knew?
What a headline that would’ve made. It was written in the first. Patrick Towles was rushed while backed up in his own end zone, he threw under pressure to the middle, and who else? Moore with the pick, his third of the season and 10th of his career. He’s getting close to having his own video-game button – circle for spin, square for Moore INT.
Cooper can’t be covered. Opponents know he’s the main target (and really the only one, after yet another game went by without any other receivers stepping forward) and still can’t stop him. Another 100-yard game and nearly another huge play. Nearly.
What does Jon Hoke tell his players at halftime? Is he holding up addresses of family members and advising defenders they better make that tackle next time? Are they watching "Rudy" on loop and hearing the "Hoosiers" speech in their headphones? Is he taking a cue from the Monstars in "Space Jam" and supplying his defenders with residue siphoned from The Steel Curtain and The Monsters of the Midway? It hasn’t just been adjustment, it’s been night and day in two straight games. Opponents do whatever they please in the first, then they’re lucky to get a snap count called without spitting out teeth in the second.
If only they could put two halves together in the same game.
The Gamecocks can run the ball. They had 195 yards on the ground Saturday, an average of 5.7 a carry. Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson … Lorenzo Nunez’s first college play was a 40-yard run. There will be options to take the pressure off Orth, and to keep the opposing offense off the field (really useful if the defense keeps its MO and considering there are Heisman hopefuls left on the schedule).
It’s not pleasant around Bluff Road right now. For the second straight week, there are more questions than answers, and now even more questions.
But there are 10 games left. Maybe 11. Look at Saturday’s other results from across the country and say (truthfully) it’s possible for USC to keep its streak of winning seasons alive.
There are too many cringe-worthy moments to count when it comes to USC football history. So many plays that have you thinking, "Only the Gamecocks could do that."
The option pitch Saturday? The one that killed a drive and knocked out Mitch? Yeah. Get rid of that one.
Those in the know only thought one thing – "He sure Pinnock’ed that one."
Down 24-13, the defense bowing its back and the offense clicking, Carson wormed for 11 yards to the 2-yard-line. This was going to be it – USC was going to get that elusive touchdown, cut it to four and watch out.
Alan Knott was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Steve Spurrier said that Knott was taking some trash talk from a guy and decided to shove him. While USC ended up getting a first down on the drive anyway, and had a second-and-goal at the 2, the Gamecocks again had to settle for a field goal. Knott’s foul cost them at least one more crack at the end zone.
WHERE WAS THIS?
USC’s defense in the second half was like that futile five minutes Kentucky couldn’t finish last year as a 5-1 start fizzled into 5-7. The Wildcats knew they had something that was working, but doggone if they could find it anymore.
In the first half?
Wide-open slants, all day. No tackling on runs up the middle, many from JoJo Kemp, as if USC didn’t know what he could do. The Wildcats suckered USC into a too-common trap – it spread the secondary out with short passes, then began to gash with the run. The Gamecocks stacked eight in the box and still couldn’t stop it.
Sure, they adjusted, but 24 points given up by halftime loomed rather large at the end, donchathink?
HE’S (ALMOST) AUTOMATIC
Elliott Fry missed a 42-yard field goal in the first half. With those three points, USC doesn’t have to go for two in the fourth and Cooper doesn’t fumble and it doesn’t get run back …
COMING IN CLEAR?
Carlton Heard caught a pass (apparently Kentucky forgot he was on the field), as did Deebo Samuel (who also dropped one). So somebody besides Cooper or a tight end or running back contributed to the receiving totals.
As much as I personally believe Orth will do well, it does go back to the straight talent issue. He was the backup for a reason. And as much of a great story as it is if he succeeds – six weeks ago this kid was a walk-on stocking shelves at Publix to help pay for school.
If he pulls the Gamecocks out of this nosedive, he’ll be on the "Today" show and be compared to Kurt Warner. If he doesn’t play that well … it’ll be because he was a walk-on stocking shelves at Publix.
THE BEST TEAM WON
Kentucky had better skill players and in the first half, better linemen that were bulldozing the Gamecocks off the field. Kentucky is not exactly known as a football recruiting hotbed, which is why the Wildcats go to Ohio and dip into Florida.
South Carolina has more than its fair share of all-time great players that went to the NFL. While the recruiting base hasn’t changed, the talent level of players from those bases sure seems to have.
This is a problem.
First drive of the second half, USC had first-and-10 at the 11. Three straight pass plays and kick. Second drive of the second half, first-and-10 at the 13. Two-yard run, two straight pass plays and kick.
I completely agree with Wilds. USC should run the ball more. USC should run the ball more in the red zone. USC should hand the ball to its best runner in the red zone, and that’s Wilds.
I’m not so sure he should say that to us, the media, knowing we’re going to post video and other commentary on it. He knows that Spurrier will hear about it, and maybe he’ll get punished for it, and then you have a standoff within the team (Spurrier said Sunday he has no problem with Wilds’ words).
There’s a reason that a lot of players from last year didn’t return. Playing time isn’t the reason with all of them.
It’s hard not to think, "That was the season."
People asked me all summer, "UNC game’s the most important, right? That’s the biggest game on the schedule." I never agreed. I always said Kentucky, because that was a conference game at home. Lose to the Tar Heels, eh, they can get it back by doing well in the SEC and keeping a dream of a division title alive (unlikely, I know). And they defend the home turf. Lose the Kentucky game, and they’re 0-1 in the SEC at home and that’s one of the easiest ones they were going to get, and didn’t.
They didn’t get it, and it’s awful hard to sit here looking at this team and the schedule and think five more wins and a bowl are automatic.
Next week, I was never going to say definite loss, even on the road against a strong Georgia team that has the best player in the league. Why? Spurrier vs. Georgia. He stays up nights figuring out ways to beat those guys and after winning four of the last five, you have to think USC is in the Bulldogs’ heads a bit.
After this head-scratcher, it’s hard to think the Gamecocks will have enough miracles to pull one out between the hedges. Melvin Ingram ain’t gonna find one more game of eligibility.
UCF lost its quarterback, Vanderbilt is a bad football team and The Citadel is an FCS opponent. All of those games are at home, feasibly meaning they should be three wins. Add UNC, that’s four.
Get Kentucky, that’s five and surely the Gamecocks could steal one somewhere else. At Missouri or Tennessee? Hosting Florida or (like the Georgia game, throw out the stats) Clemson? Just one of those and there’s six and a bowl and that’s something for this team.
Now USC has to get two. Stranger things have happened, but the Gamecocks are approaching trying to fill an inside straight and depending on that last flop card to do so.
PENTHOUSE TO …
I wrote this on Sunday morning as well. Sixteen games ago, USC was finishing an 11-2 season, its third straight. It’s 8-7 since.
Yes, those teams had massive talent. They also had average players who were fundamentally sound and occasionally brilliant. The last two teams haven’t had that – not nearly the outstanding talent, and average guys who play average football.
Is it recruiting? Is it that the luck USC had for those three straight years has run out? Is it time for changes, like one the coach who constructed this house freely admitted he thought of making after 2014 went from preseason pick for SEC East champ to clawing to win a bowl game in Shreveport?
Considering USC’s overall history, perhaps it’s an overreaction. The Gamecocks never belonged in the realm of 11-win seasons and Top-10 finishes. For decades, the common mantra was, "Well, maybe a winning season, and beat Clemson" for a successful year. It’s caught up.
Then again, even in many of those years, USC beat Kentucky. To admit the Wildcats have passed them, and to know it was because Kentucky was the better team …
At least it wasn’t Navy.
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