David Cloninger

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: USF

THE GOOD

BIG PICTURE

South Carolina went to a bowl game, and not one of those bowls you get when your grades are good enough. Yes, it was a bad destination (how does a team making a bowl due to APR go to St. Pete and USC earns its way to Birmingham?) but it was a bowl game. Considering this team was picked seventh in the SEC East only because it couldn’t be picked eighth, and was coming off a 3-9 season and losing its two best players, getting to a bowl is a tremendous accomplishment.

As for not winning it … well, it’s not nearly the first time the Gamecocks had a great season and lost the bowl game.

GRAY SKIES ARE GONNA CLEAR UP (IF)

Strictly looking at personnel, USC returns a sophomore quarterback (with another sophomore behind him), a sophomore tailback (with another sophomore behind him), a junior game-breaking wideout (with a sophomore game-breaking wideout alongside him), a junior tight end who will win the Mackey Award over the next two years and an offensive line that while, um, not great, only loses one starter.

Now, if that line can block, that seems to be a pretty good chance to put up some points next year. IF the offensive coaches will let them.

We’ll discuss this later.

WE CAN DO IT (OCCASIONALLY)

The offensive line played pretty well (for the game, not whatever that last play was). That at least gives the hope it can keep that up, especially with a new line coach coming in.

Of course, we all said before this year that the offensive line would be the strength of the team due to its experience. Which proves why you should never take preseason words too seriously.

SOME LUCK

It wasn’t all bad bounces and missed opportunities. Rico Dowdle had a ball punched out and it went right to Jake Bentley. A high snap bounced into Dowdle’s hands and he carried it for a first down.

And Bentley runs into his own man on fourth down, throws a pass into the corner of the end zone that gets batted up and into the arms of his diving receiver for a touchdown.

Who knows? Had the Gamecocks played remotely close to strong defense, or had Bentley not thrown two picks, or Dowdle not fumbled on the 2, or A.J. Turner not fumbled on the 3, or USC had grabbed a few more opportunities, or called a timeout with 35 seconds to go in the fourth to force a punt, or had it been a worse team it was playing, it could have been just a three-point loss.

KEEP FIGHTING

They could have quit after the pick-6, but they didn’t. That alone removes some of the stink from the game before this, and some of the stigma from the last bowl in Birmingham.

Of course, the last bowl didn’t have inexplicable turnovers.

SMALL FRY

I’ll put aside the acerbic snark for a minute and say that I have absolutely loved covering Elliott Fry for four years. Not only was it a great story – a preferred walk-on with only two major offers winning the starting job and a scholarship as a freshman and becoming the school’s career-leading scorer while battling diabetes – but he was a great kid. Polite, engaging but with a devious side, Fry is the kind of player that every team needs a lot of.

Here’s to an outstanding person, and player. Godspeed, young man.

THE LAST TIME I SAID THIS …

And you can confirm with anyone at my former employer. I was walking out after the last bowl in Birmingham (2010). Got in the car. Fired it up. Turned to the other three in the car.

“Well, boys, baseball season starts in February.”

That statement and Ray Tanner starting Michael Roth were equally responsible for what happened that summer.

THE BAD

SCORING AT (ON) WILL

This defense played way over its talent level early in the year, so perhaps it’s not surprising it fell late in the year. Still, it’s concerning that the defense – which, keep in mind, is Will Muschamp’s specialty – continues to play with little fundamental acumen and smaller and smaller effort.

Where was the spy on Quinton Flowers? Think having one guy constantly shadow a quarterback that had three rushing touchdowns in the first half would have been a good idea?

(And it should be noted that Muschamp, who had so many quarterback issues at Florida, didn’t want to recruit Flowers as a quarterback to Florida.)

What I saw on USF’s second touchdown drive:

* Darius English was stiff-armed by an American Athletic Conference tailback to avoid a tackle-for-loss.

* Over-running, arm-tackling and consistent allowed yards after contact by Chris Moody (twice), D.J. Smith and Mark King.

* Qua Lewis stood in the backfield and watched a runner go right past him. He remained rooted to the spot.

* Bryson Allen-Williams couldn’t cover a man out of the backfield on fourth down and gave up a huge completion (although man, what a pick in the second half).

That was on one drive.

Where was the pass-rush on the touchdown toss? You know, the one where USC allowed Flowers to stand there all day until he had a wide-open man, with seven seconds left before halftime in an eight-point game, when USC would have the ball first in the third quarter?

Where was the pass-rush on the overtime touchdown toss? Was it not obvious that if you give Flowers room, he will find a wide-open receiver for a touchdown?

USC’s defense gave up an average of 459 yards over its last five games. Again, there wasn’t that much to count on throughout … but it played pretty well in the first eight games (382.5 yards).

“Never again,” huh?

“Never” only took a month to get reset.

PRINCE SANG IT

It seems like Bentley has nothing to worry about next year in terms of keeping his job, because all of the good he did outweighed the bad, but is USC going to be able to function if Bentley doesn’t start well (like he didn’t the last two games?) If he gives up more back-breaking turnovers when USC gets close? If he takes sacks with the game on the line?

I honestly thought Brandon McIlwain would have split by now, but he hasn’t. Maybe he sees something the rest of us saw on Thursday – there’s a lot to like and a lot to not like about Bentley.

JUST CAN’T GRASP IT

Jonathan Walton couldn’t corral a bouncing kickoff that hit a USF player. The Gamecocks as a whole couldn’t stop the Bulls on fourth down, and not enough times on third down. Chris Lammons couldn’t jump on a fumble early in the game that would have erased a touchdown.

Opportunity hammering away and USC didn’t want to answer the door.

ONE OUT OF THREE AIN’T BAD

The Gamecocks appear set on offense for 2017, but they’ll be replacing a lot of guys off a defense that wilted late in the season and all of the crucial players on special teams. Fry, long snapper Drew Williams and punter Sean Kelly are gone (although backup punter Michael Almond got a crash course during the bowl).

USC also continues to have issues with covering kickoffs and catching kicks. This stuff doesn’t seem so important until you give up a kickoff return for a TD in the national championship game.

That did happen, you know.

ETD

That’s spray-painted on the corner of the practice field, so every player walks over it going to and from.

Four turnovers. Two inside the 5.

Perhaps there was confusion that it stood for “Effort. Toughness. Drops.”

THE UGLY

DECIDE

Offense killed Muschamp’s Florida tenure. And I’m not pinning that on Kurt Roper, who was the offensive coordinator for the final year when he was handed a running offense and told to make it exciting.

It’s why I’ve tried very hard not to blame Roper this year. There are so many reasons why he couldn’t be blamed for the Gamecocks’ sputtering offense.

Three different starting quarterbacks. A thought-to-be-OK offensive line unable to knock a hole in a wet Kleenex. Freshmen and sophomores at the skill positions. Never knowing what he was going to get not only from game to game, but snap to snap.

Yet the overall effect from the year was to play it safe, not take a chance. In short, to be what doomed Muschamp at Florida – terrified to take a risk.

The Gamecocks couldn’t afford to be down two scores to USF. They were down 15-0 on Thursday. Why?

They got the stop on USF’s first drive. So they immediately didn’t try to knock the Bulls back with a deep pass. Considering how Bentley’s first two passes went (near-pick and pick), it seemed to be the right call. Yet a first-down run was a red flag that USC wasn’t going to go for the jugular unless it absolutely had to.

Gamecocks had to answer after the first USF touchdown. Run, run, a pass short of the first down. Hmmmm.

After finally get the ball moving but still trailing, USC didn’t want to risk another fumble and ran up the middle on third-and-short. Too predictable.

I admit, throwing a touchdown in the fourth to give the defense some hope worked (although that was more Bentley making a play than the call). Being aggressive when they had to be worked. Yet when the game was tied and the defense finally got a stop … why not call a timeout? I know it was the last one, and there were only 40 seconds, and that meant putting the ball in the hands of a punt returner, which hasn’t exactly been USC’s best position this year.

But one catch, one throw to the sideline and you have Fry, who could have ended the year the same way he began it. Don’t you have to take that chance?

Overtime, either way. I think the defense only stopped USF in the fourth because the Bulls were playing it safe. So either way, the Gamecocks had to score a TD or stop a TD. Couldn’t do either.

Still …

Deebo Samuel tied a school record with 14 catches. He was targeted zero times in the last 10 plays.

USC chose defense first in overtime instead of making USF play catch-up. The defense had no blitz and USF had no incentive to play safe.

The Gamecocks’ running game hadn’t done squat all day. USC was gifted a first down in OT, then ran two straight times to set up two throwing downs.

Again, the first year was always going to be given a free pass.

The first year is over.

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