THE BIG PICTURE
Handed no favors with the schedule (seriously, when’s the last time any SEC team had its first three league games all on the road in September?), South Carolina would have done well to be 2-2 after its first four. That would be defending the home field and stealing one of those road games.
So that’s done.
The Gamecocks needed Darius English to be his initials. He didn’t have to be (Rock Hill’s own) Jadeveon Clowney, but just live up to what he looked like – a tall, lengthy athlete who could rush the passer and bring him down with that Big Bird wingspan. He hadn’t lived up to it before this year, but is doing it now – English had three sacks by the third quarter and finished with eight tackles and a forced fumble.
The offensive line mostly played well (CALM DOWN. This is explained). Considering what the line looked like the first three weeks, it played very strongly for the second, third and most of the fourth quarters Saturday. That’s because adding an extra man to it after punting on the first four series was a good adjustment.
Cory Helms and Zack Bailey each had key blocks on A.J. Turner’s touchdown run, and I thought there were a lot of holes the line opened that the running backs just didn’t hit. That also goes for Brandon McIlwain on the zone-read.
Why it failed late was simple. The Gamecocks needed to get downfield and had to line up extra receivers, taking away that extra man on the line, and Kentucky was sending the house.
THANKS TO MILK CARTON
That was the guy’s handle on our online game thread. He came up with the nick, “Big Red Machine” for Hayden Hurst, who continues to show why he can be an all-SEC player. He led the Gamecocks in receiving, broke the big play to get them in position for their only TD and on that play, had a textbook stiff-arm on a low-diving tackler. From walking into the stadium like he was creating the nWo to playing like the Wolfpac, the only thing missing from Hurst’s game was flicking a toothpick at the audience after a catch.
That was two straight weeks of Good David Williams. He was charging into defenders, staying upright and getting his feet out of the turf. The production wasn’t game-breaking, but I’m not sure anyone, after watching him the last two years, expected that. He gained yardage and didn’t turn it over.
Sean Kelly is one of the best punters in the country. It’s like he’s throwing darts with the ball.
Certainly not his fault he’s called on so much.
Mark King stripped a fumble that Qua Lewis recovered. D.J. Smith had an interception thrown right to him. King should have had another pick but it was wiped on a pass interference penalty that I never saw Antoine Wilder commit. USC is doing enough defensively if it could get some help.
Your bi-weekly reminder that basketball season begins Nov. 11. And South Carolina’s women’s team will again be picked to win the SEC.
AFTER LABOR DAY, TOO
The Gamecocks’ all-white togs, as usual, looked classy. Kentucky looked like it rolled through a mud puddle on the way in.
BLOCKIN’ PART II
The line could have done more, yes. But the running game offers no threat, and much of that Saturday fell on McIlwain and his tailbacks.
Zone-read with McIlwain is not working. Yes, he’s a freshman, but he seems hesitant to pick a lane and run through it. He also heads toward the sideline when there are yards to be had.
Turner is very quick but he’s not big enough to take a hit and slip that first tackle. That’s something Williams can do but he doesn’t have the burst to make one missed tackle turn into a long gain. The Gamecocks can’t run strictly Turner on the edge and Williams in the middle before opponents catch on, so they don’t have a lot of options.
As for pass-blocking, the line struggled early before it got it fixed, and by that time McIlwain wasn’t setting his feet and stepping into the throw. Again, he’s a freshman and playing with a patchwork receiving corps but some of these throws are there and he’s not hitting them. So at first he can’t get time to throw, then when he does, he’s feeling phantom pressure.
Fans have hollered for Shawn Elliott’s head – and they’ve had cause to for the first three weeks – but Saturday, it wasn’t all the line. Everybody contributed.
The Gamecocks were missing tackles right, left and middle as the third quarter wore on, and everybody in the stadium knew Kentucky would keep running. It’s the same way they beat USC two years ago. Straight middle runs, Benny Snell was moving the pile, USC didn’t have the depth or energy to stop it.
Fatigue, I believe, plays a part in that. And I can somewhat buy the same play (off-tackle left) working every time since USC’s secondary is so thin. But runs up the middle? Grab and hold on.
WHERE’S YOUR HEAD?
T.J. Brunson and Toure Boyd blasted a Kentucky defender on a punt return that went for a touchdown. Nothing wrong with that except they hit him in the back after Rashad Fenton was already past him.
Those seven points could have come in handy.
It was the right call when English was flagged for hitting the punter after the punter dropped the ball, then picked it up and kicked. The rule says the player has to leave the tackle box to get the kicker-safety rule removed, and he didn’t. So that’s just bad luck.
What killed USC on that drive was a third-and-long pass from Stephen Johnson for a first down. Johnson did the jitterbug for a full six seconds before he threw over the middle. Where was the pass-rush?
NOWHERE TO GO
When the pass-blocking held, McIlwain had nobody to throw to. And not because Kentucky’s woeful secondary was doing a great job covering them, but because USC’s receivers that played weren’t supposed to be playing, outside of Bryan Edwards.
USC has spent all this time developing Deebo Samuel but his troublesome hamstrings won’t let him play. Dreak Davis was starting to do some good things, and his hamstring acted up in practice. Edwards was Edwards, but McIlwain can’t hit him in stride and his acrobatic catches are often bailing out bad throws. He can’t do that every time.
Most of USC’s receivers are like their quarterback – inexperienced. They don’t know how they can help him help them.
I TOLD YOU SO
When USC had one of the greatest wins in its history – over No. 1 Alabama, 2010 – I said immediately after, “It’s times like these I think of USC’s 10-game winning streak against Kentucky and say it has to end sometime.”
It did, the next week, with a fourth-quarter collapse. Kentucky has won four of the past seven, including three in a row for the first time ever over USC. Mark Stoops has five SEC wins in his four-year career, with three over USC. Saturday was the first time all season Kentucky forced three straight punts, and then increased it to four.
Guns N’ Roses said it best – nothing lasts forever.
Of course USC fans were raging at Will Muschamp’s offense and demanding the heads of Elliott and Kurt Roper immediately after McIlwain was again planted face-first in Bermuda. They couldn’t believe the Gamecocks’ offense was that lousy.
As a colleague put it afterward, “It’s not even expecting it to be great. Why would you expect it not to be terrible?”
The Gamecocks could score last year because they had Pharoh Cooper and the threat of Pharoh Cooper. If he didn’t get the ball, they had Jerell Adams and Brandon Wilds and maybe Lorenzo Nunez and Elliott Fry. Fry’s still here but Nunez is probably going to be redshirted. The others are gone.
The most experienced receiver, Samuel, caught 12 balls last year and hasn’t been able to stay on the field. Williams is just now becoming sturdy but isn’t a guy you give the ball to 25 times a game. The freshmen on this team aren’t Alabama’s freshmen.
I truly believe the venom from this game is because it was Kentucky. The Wildcats are a bad team, but their defensive numbers came against teams that had veteran offensive personnel that at least knew what they were supposed to do. The Gamecocks couldn’t say that and damn sure couldn’t play like it.
There were a couple of times where I questioned the play-calling – side-to-side screen passes yielded a first down, so USC immediately quit doing it – but mostly, it was somebody messing up right when the offense got into rhythm. Either McIlwain held on too long or misfired the pass, or Turner slipped, then tried to go right when the play was to the left, or Terry Googer dropped an overthrown ball that he got a hand on. McIlwain was starting his second game and is prone to freshman mistakes (if you don’t believe that’s a thing, check how freshman Jacob Eason did Saturday).
The Gamecocks are suffering from young players not knowing what to do and a coaching staff scaling back what it wants to do in order to put in something that can work. Through four games, USC can’t find anything consistent because the running game isn’t going anywhere and they made a QB change after the second week. I’m not sure why fans seem to think it was going to suddenly be all right, even if it was against Kentucky – perhaps they placed far too much stock in that unfortunate “fast and furious” line from Muschamp’s hiring press conference.
As for the “we deserve better” crowd, yes, you do. But it wasn’t this current team or staff that decided to quit doing what produced 40 wins in four years.
All they get to do is clean up the mess.
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