In the second half that saved South Carolina’s season, three plays stood out.
All three, a review of the game by The State revealed, came as a result of the Gamecocks’ decision to attack the middle of the field during a 27-24 double overtime win against Missouri.
On the first play, South Carolina trailed 17-0 early in the fourth quarter and faced a third-and-19 from the Tigers’ 25-yard line when quarterback Connor Shaw threw a short screen pass to Mike Davis who picked up the 19 yards and set up South Carolina’s first score.
Pity Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who knew the play was coming. Sam had sacked Shaw for a 9-yard loss and came off the field to get a break. As he stood on the sideline, he could be seen screaming, “Watch the screen.”
“And he’s right,” ESPN analyst Matt Millen said as Davis rumbled down the field.
South Carolina didn’t throw its first inside screen to Davis until the 11:54 mark of the third quarter, but he finished with 84 yards on seven inside screen receptions. On the final scoring drive in regulation, he caught three screen passes for 36 yards.
The middle of the field against Missouri’s predominantly Cover 2 zone defense (with two safeties deep and aligned toward the outside of the field) turned out to be fertile ground for the Gamecocks’ comeback. On the drive after the first touchdown, Shaw found tight end Jerell Adams down the middle for 25 yards to give South Carolina a first-and-goal at the 9.
“This is what (Dylan) Thompson couldn’t find all night long,” Millen said. “In that two deep, the middle deep is wide open.”
The next drive, wide receiver Bruce Ellington got the ball rolling with a 20-yard catch in the deep middle.
“The same spot they are attacking there is no one there,” Millen said.
Combined, Shaw and Thompson were 19-of-24 for 273 yards throwing to the middle of the field and 16-of-32 for 150 yards throwing to the outside.
Other observations from The Tape:
• Like everyone else, the game’s announcers were impressed with Shaw.
“One thing I know about Connor Shaw, he’s a tough sucker,” Millen said.
• On both of Davis’ two fumbles, he was holding the ball too low, not exceptionally low but not high enough either, and Missouri’s players ripped it out with one hand.
“There is no excuse for that,” Millen said. “You have to be able to secure the ball at all times.”
Missouri is one of the nation’s best at forcing turnovers. Saturday was the Tigers’ FBS-record 38th straight game of forcing a turnover, and they’re tied for seventh in the country this year with 21 takeaways.
• Thompson overthrew at least six passes before being replaced by Shaw, but he also had success working the middle of the field, completing 7-of-8 for 128 yards. USC threw to the middle of the field 16 times when Shaw was in the game.
At one point Millen said of Thompson, “the footwork there is just awful.”
Missouri ran a lot of run blitzes, and they worked. The Gamecocks averaged 2.1 yards per carry.
• USC rotated linebackers less against Missouri than in the previous two games. Kaiwan Lewis and Marcquis Roberts started the game, ending a streak of three straight starts by T.J. Holloman at middle linebacker. Lewis finished with one tackle (and one interception), and the Gamecocks’ four linebackers at the middle and weakside positions combined for eight tackles.
• Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles had his best game of the season, notching six tackles, including three for loss. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney finished with five tackles.
“When you put the tape on, one thing becomes abundantly clear, when (Clowney) wants to play, there is no one better,” Millen said. “That guy decided to play last week, and he put on a show.”