SOUTH CAROLINA 13, VANDERBILT 10
South Carolina won. No matter how it looked, any problems that were revealed or what may happen down the road, the Gamecocks are 1-0 and (for at least eight days) on top of the SEC. As I said beforehand, get this one, and there are five more wins on the schedule to get to bowl eligibility. But right now, being 1-0 and on top of the league, the Gamecocks don’t have to limit themselves to a bowl. Right now, they can dream of being one of those teams that keeps finding ways to win all through the season.
And who’s to say they can’t be?
THE FRISCO KID (with a nod to Gene Wilder)
I thought if it came down to a close game, USC had the edge because of its kicker. Elliott Fry’s a senior, he’s been in a lot of big games and made some big kicks, and while I was thinking it was asking an awful lot of him to kick it 55 yards when he was 2-for-8 from 50 or longer in his career, he made it with room to spare. Hat tip as well to Will Muschamp and Coleman Hutzler, who saw the wind going toward the closed end of Vanderbilt Stadium in pre-game and planned for Fry to have the air at his back in the fourth, just in case.
Never too early to launch a Heisman campaign. They can label it, “Fry-sman.”
COOL HAND PERRY
Perry Orth, I think we all knew, was going to start because he had the experience. Brandon McIlwain was going to play, though, and he did some very good things in the first half.
But the coaches saw Orth was doing well, too, and it wasn’t his fault his receivers couldn’t catch or his line couldn’t open holes or play penalty-free football. So he played the whole second half, and as the reins on the playbook loosened, so did Vanderbilt’s defense.
The Commodores played aggressive on the short routes early but couldn’t hang late, and their tackles started to slip. Orth took advantage, spotting the high-flying Bryan Edwards and seeing A.J. Turner begin to sprint through holes, and commanded his troops as a wizened field general should -- patient, calm and above all, productive.
Say what you want about Orth, and how he never should have been in this position, and you’d be right. But I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a kid do more with less. He found a way, firing third-down completions when his run game was stuffed on first and second and playing confidently when USC was handed its game-winning opportunity.
Vanderbilt’s defense figured to own the night but USC’s parade of rookies began to shine. Edwards soared for 101 yards on eight catches while Turner rushed for 70 yards on 13 carries, and caught a beautiful wheel from Orth as part of three catches for 27 yards.
They’re in the starting lineup for a reason. We saw why.
WELL, IF YOU DON’T WANT IT …
I have no idea why Vanderbilt sat Kyle Shurmur after he’d led it to a 10-0 lead. Wade Freebeck entered and the Commodores were suddenly maestros of the three-and-out. But that lapse allowed USC to keep it a two-score game, and once the mistakes were out of their system, the Gamecocks started moving the ball.
That decision may come back to haunt Derek Mason.
SO IT CAN WORK
Wasn’t it nice to see a defense play fundamentally sound, wrapping tackles and switching its alignment based on what the offense’s personnel showed? I’d forgotten what that looked like after last year. USC was beginning to get carved up late in the game but that was fatigue, not effort.
And also not because it was sitting 15 yards off the line and daring the quarterback to complete a wide-open pass.
WE HERE NOW
Vanderbilt is never going to get much from its home crowd. USC’s faithful made sure any potential advantage would be negated.
The Gamecocks think they sold more tickets for Thursday than they ever have for a game in Nashville. The fans’ impact was evident.
IT’S THERE, BUT …
I think five more wins are on the schedule, and it could be more. But USC won’t be playing opponents as offensively one-dimensional as Vanderbilt, and probably won’t get a break like Vandy sitting the QB who rolled up a 10-0 lead. While 13 points won Thursday, pitching a first-half goose egg generally isn’t a great way to win ballgames.
“Effort. Toughness. Discipline.” has been USC’s mantra in spring and summer ball, and is even spray-painted on the grass at the entrance to the practice fields. There was no problem with the first two on Thursday, but that last one was nowhere to be found in the first half.
Turner nearly got busted for a safety when he tried to take the opening kick out, changed his mind, stepped over the line, tried to take a knee, then ran out. Cory Helms was whistled for holding on the first play of the game. More foolish penalties drove USC backward and McIlwain fumbled away a possession after he’d gotten the Gamecocks in gear.
First-game jitters. They hope.
RIGHT THROUGH … NO, WAIT … HERE … NO, WAIT …
USC’s offensive line was supposed to be a strength. The Gamecocks are big, heavy and mostly experienced. Yet they weren’t showing much early.
Pass-blocking was good, but they couldn’t open any holes for the running backs and their blocking for receivers around the edge was pitiful. They were a man down (Alan Knott was suspended) but that shouldn’t have had that much of an effect. USC’s line was manhandled in the first half.
SLOW AND STEADY
Muschamp made it clear that it wasn’t “conservative” play-calling, that that’s just a label his teams get because of his last name. OK, but whatever that was, it wasn’t dynamic.
Yes, dropped passes and penalties limited most of the early drives, but in the second quarter, after Freebeck entered and USC’s defense was getting the ball back with great field position, what was that? Vandy was playing for the short passes, yet USC never tried to pump-fake and go deep. The Gamecocks never tried to roll out Orth or McIlwain and hit someone on the run. The tight ends, also supposed to be a strength, were largely ignored. And USC didn’t want to try for pickups on fourth-and-1 when it had yet to score.
It became very predictable. Turner would run when Orth was in the game, McIlwain would run when he was in the game, passes limited to 5-yard outs. Vandy had no trouble picking up on those. I have no problem in playing not to lose … but the Gamecocks were losing at the time.
It’s a fact of football – the first game always has a few guys who crossed the line during the offseason and have to sit. USC had four of them out for Thursday, with Abu Lamin out the next two as well.
The popular “violation of team rules” was the reason. Many of the national folks were screaming about short-handedness or tough blows when the news was announced, but that wasn’t close to accurate.
Christian Pellage’s suspension was no surprise after he’d been arrested over the summer and Muschamp said he’d miss some game time. I don’t know what Knott, Lamin and Toure Boyd did, but the only one of those guys who would have played was Knott. It’s never good to lose players, but those four being out wasn’t any kind of body shot to the Gamecocks.
But considering the Gamecocks’ youth, USC doesn’t need this to become a habit.
BACK IN … BLACK, GARNET AND WHITE
I went to the time and trouble to find out the last time, if ever, USC wore all-black (vs. Georgia, 2004 – thanks, Rick). I figured with Vandy wearing white, the Gamecocks could play the “good guys vs. bad guys” angle and come out in all-black, living up to their media guide pictures.
Nope. Garnet helmets on black jerseys. The two colors complement each other as trim, but starkly contrast when used in major doses. In the words of Wayne Campbell, it looked like a plate of hurl.
If players voted for it, hey, that’s their choice. And they can’t change it now, after winning in them. But matching helmets and jerseys is a good thing.
LONG WAY TO GO
It’s a problem that is never going to be solved. USC is very thin at spots and is a couple of injuries away from being destitute.
A close game like Thursday’s meant the Gamecocks couldn’t experiment with some of the younger players because they had to depend on their veterans. It was good enough to win, though.
The cloud of potential injury or fatigue is one that will never go away, but as long as the cloud stays on the radar and doesn’t float overhead, everything’s OK.
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