David Cloninger

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Texas A&M

THE GOOD

THE GOON SQUAD

Or whatever a new nickname could be (Robinson’s Wreckers? T-Rob’s Terrors? Robbie’s Renegades?). It’s simply pleasing to see a good defense play, which the Gamecocks have not been able to present the last two years. USC only broke a couple of times (and much was because it was giving opportunity after opportunity to the offense and not seeing them converted), but overall provided a great chance to win. They got turnovers, finished tackles and took A&M out of its game plan. The Aggies attacked downfield early, USC adjusted, and adjusted again when the Aggies tried to go side-to-side. The Gamecocks did what they wanted to do, which was force Trevor Knight to win it with his arm.

They did get lucky a few times (Knight overthrew a couple of wide-open receivers for six points apiece) but that favors the prepared. Even a lost turnover (Jon Walton had a pick clang off his hands) didn’t come back to hurt.

2014 was the year of blown fourth quarters and mid-field coverage. 2015 was blown mid-field coverage and every other defensive play. This year, USC has effort, toughness, discipline (at least on defense).

Almost like that’s painted on the practice field.

GERARDO

Yes, A.J. Turner had more yards, but Rico Dowdle was the best running back of the night. He was tough, finishing runs through contact; quick, able to get through the first hole and get positive yards; and sneaky, changing direction on a dime. He brought to mind … well, I won’t put those kind of expectations on the kid just yet, but it’s a good thing he changed his number to 23. That 21 is pretty exalted, you know.

FIXED?

There’s at least hope that USC can be a competent, fluid offense after Perry (Per-ry! Per-ry! Per-ry!) Orth entered the game and moved the Gamecocks downfield with a weapon previously unknown to Brandon McIlwain: The forward pass. Call it the QB or call it the plays – for the record, Will Muschamp says the playbook doesn’t change depending on the QB – but USC looked better with Orth in the game.

Strike that. USC looked half a world away from the new definition of three-and-out it’s displayed the last three weeks.

SO IT CAN HAPPEN …

There’s also the hope the Gamecocks can start every game with a quick-strike touchdown … or at least every home game. That’s twice Turner has gashed the opponent on his first touch in a home game and there are four consecutive home games starting Saturday.

PUT ME IN, COACH!

If Orth/McIlwain doesn’t work out, Sean Kelly and Hayden Hurst each threw perfect passes against Texas A&M. I mean, touch/velocity/target perfect.

BIG UGLIES

The offensive line, for the second straight week, was decent. Not great, decent. Yes, there are still problems, but compared to how bad the line looked the first two weeks, it’s a very big jump. Some of that is stability (although Malik Young did make his first career start Saturday over D.J. Park, who had been in the spot). But overall, there was good pass protection, when quarterbacks would actually step forward and throw it.

I know there will be plenty who critique my assessment of the line, as they did last week. And I also know that when a narrative has been set – and the line was awful the first two games – it’s hard to change it. From where I sit, especially when adding a sixth man to the line, USC has played pretty good the past two weeks.

It could be much better, but it’s not as bad as it was.

SOON

Your almost-weekly reminder that the basketball team’s first practice is Monday and the first game is Nov. 11. And a story on a strong candidate for National Player of the Year will be in GoGamecocks the Magazine next month (Hint: She plays for USC).

SO YOU’RE TELLIN’ ME THERE’S A CHANCE

It could still happen. Really. The Gamecocks need four wins for bowl eligibility. UMass and WCU aren’t gimmes but they’re at home. So are Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri. The Tigers were just curb-stomped at LSU and are the best chance for USC to win another SEC game, while the Volunteers’ luck has to run out sometime and the Bulldogs have lost two straight, with their two wins before those by a combined three points.

Then there’s Florida, which against Vanderbilt looked about as overpowering as Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle against a lonely Arkansas road. A bowl is doable.

TRIBBLES

I enjoyed the USC band’s halftime formation of the Enterprise and the fire extinguisher smoke plumes to make it fly.

THE BAD

LITTLE MAC

He is just a freshman, but I really expected to see more out of McIlwain. Everywhere I turn I get evidence of how mature he is – I can’t say for myself, due to policies of not talking to the media – and considering he was a star at baseball, where failing seven times out of 10 gets you in the Hall of Fame, I believe it. But there are a lot of concerns I see.

Is the game plan to protect McIlwain or is McIlwain gun-shy about throwing? Muschamp says it’s the same playbook for each quarterback but McIlwain will not throw downfield. Saturday, he threw a bad pass that Justin Evans intercepted, which was overturned due to an A&M penalty. Still, McIlwain was aiming for Chavis Dawkins running behind Evans to the sideline and tried to go over the safety. Five plays later, he threw an interception that was tipped by Armani Watts and recovered with an incredible play. That one stood and removed any future thought of McIlwain throwing a slant in traffic (which had worked to Dawkins earlier) or going for the mid-range sideline pass.

McIlwain completed nine passes and still had less yardage than the punter. I know the entire front line of receivers was out, including the best possession (Deebo Samuel) and deep-threat (Bryan Edwards) guys, but Orth didn’t have any problems completing passes – remember, in the same offensive package. McIlwain looks un-instinctive, afraid to do anything but the exact play-call and hasn’t shown a lot of passing ability thus far. On a pass play to the near sideline for 8-10 yards, he feathered a pass like it was to the corner of the end zone. It would have been caught by the guy with the painted “M” in “Gamecocks” on his chest had it not hit the fence.

Muschamp says McIlwain can show a lot of looks with his legs, and he can. But it’s becoming a stamped identity when either he or Orth is in the game.

AND THERE’S THE RUB

Orth looked great, but USC was trailing two scores and needed to get the ball downfield. Defenses know it can drop eight when he’s in because he won’t run.

With McIlwain, defenses can load the box and dare him to throw because he hasn’t shown he can consistently work a passing game.

Is there a medium to be found?

* BIG UGLIES

Myles Garrett, the likely No. 1 pick in the draft and a guy who, if he was from Rock Hill, could rival Jadeveon Clowney, didn’t travel. A&M still had 10 tackles for loss and three sacks.

I’m not saying Mason Zandi and Young played on skates but … there was an advantage to be had, running to the side not occupied by Daeshon Hall, and USC still couldn’t take it.

YEAH, BUT …

It’s concerning that in Game 5 USC’s best two passers of the year are its tight end and punter.

WELCOME TO WILLIAMS-BRICE

McIlwain’s best play of the day came when he skirted the line, hit the sideline and ran inside the 10. He had his confidence back and the Gamecocks were surely going to re-take the lead.

The play was called back for a double hold. A DOUBLE HOLD. Young and Zack Bailey teamed on it.

Only at USC could there be a double hold.

NOT SENDING OUT FOR SOS

We all knew that Muschamp would not be Steve Spurrier. The two are opposites offensively, with Muschamp wanting to play cautious and not turn it over and Spurrier never seeing a chance he wouldn’t take.

In that vein, I wasn’t surprised when USC’s momentum-turning plays – Kelly’s fake punt and Chris Moody’s fumble recovery – weren’t followed by a heave downfield. Remember Spurrier’s Big Book of Offense? You always, always, always take a shot after a turnover.

The Gamecocks didn’t try, and much of that is because why would they when McIlwain wouldn’t get the ball out of his hand in the first half? Yet it was vexing to see the seven calls after those two huge plays – Run, run, run, sack, run, run, run, all in A&M territory. Elliott Fry missed one field goal and made another.

In a perfect world, USC leads 21-14 with 3:14 to go in the third after those two plays. In the 2016 season, USC trailed 14-7, then 14-10, got another turnover on the next drive (Chris Lammons’ pick) and again went three-and-out.

THE UGLY

NOT SO SPECIAL

Never thought special teams would be under “Ugly” because I never thought it would cost USC a game. Outside of not being able to bust a kickoff return to the house (a streak that ended last year) and some really bad problems mid-Spurrier of allowing return TDs (sure, kick to C.J. Spiller. What’s the worst that could happen?), special teams has been dependable and often amazing.

It took a step back last week, but the offense’s futility bore the Kentucky loss. Saturday, special teams had all kinds of fingers pointing at it.

Missed field goals happen. It took four years for Fry to miss two less-than-50 field goals in the same game. There’s six points off the board.

In a 21-13 game with 4:23 to go, Evans caught the kickoff and fumbled. The ball was sitting there with three black shirts around it. A&M recovered on its 18. There’s another 3-7 points off the board.

The Gamecocks forced a punt and Mark King, who was only returning because Samuel and Rashad Fenton were hurt, dropped the ball. A&M recovered. Can’t say how many points that could have been because USC’s offense, but they would have had the ball 66 yards from a touchdown-and-two to tie with 3:20 to go.

I believe it was all-pro wunderkind Billy Clyde Puckett who said that no matter how much you plan or how good you are, the football isn’t round and you just never know which way it’s gonna bounce. Fry and the return team and King didn’t mean to mess up and overall, they’ve had great seasons. Perhaps it was just one bad day.

What makes it Ugly is after two bad games in a row, confidence has been lost in the one part of the team where that was never a problem.

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