David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s win over Kentucky.
NO. 13 SOUTH CAROLINA 35, KENTUCKY 28
FIGHTER: I don’t know how, I don’t question anymore. All I know is to never count Connor Shaw out of a ballgame. He’s the one that put it perfectly afterward – “It’s my senior year. I didn’t want to miss another game.” Somehow, that tough little SOB pulled it together after spending all but one series of last week’s game with his throwing arm in a sling to practice on Monday and start the next Saturday, and then went 17-of-20 for 262 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, also rushing for 50 yards and another score. The two plays that really helped USC win – facing third-and-10, Shaw ran left and got the 10 yards, which led to the second touchdown, and then the biggest play in the fourth. Ahead only 27-21, Kentucky, the fans, everyone watching at home and the guy in Santa Fe who was channel-surfing knew that USC would play it safe and run the ball. After Mike Davis ran for 7 yards on the first play of the drive, Shaw shot up the middle for a 31-yard gain, and then slid at the end. No more diving head-first, where he could get hit and cough the ball up. He tucked and slid, keeping the ball under control, and set up another all-important, clock-grinding touchdown drive. And to think that some fans still question his ability as the best option under center. All I have to say is, many should feel thankful that some have that commitment, to play as long as there’s breath left in their bodies. All Shaw has to say is this.
GONNA FLY NOW: No need to wonder who was going to be the Flavor of the Week Receiver this time. Shaw settled that on the game’s fourth play, seeing Damiere Byrd in one-on-one coverage and bombing deep. Byrd beat his man, gathered in the pass, stepped out of a trip-tackle and danced into the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown. Then he had four more catches for a total of 98 yards. Two straight weeks Byrd has been the go-to receiver, and for good reason – he’s catching them this time. The Gamecocks trust him to be there for the big catches, and trusted him to go to him right away on Saturday. It may have taken longer than expected, but he’s doing it.
AUTOMATIC OFFENSE: Lord, Mike Davis can flat run the football.
WAIT, WHAT?: For the first time all season, USC didn’t have an illegal substitution penalty. As Blink-182 sang, “All the, small things ”
SUPER-SIZE HIM: Elliott Fry continues to impress. He booted field goals of 40 and 41 yards and has only missed one PAT all year (and that was on a bad snap). The confidence to put him out there for a field goal keeps building, which can only help. While the Gamecocks’ offense has been consistently stellar this year, it never hurts to know you have a guy who can get those crucial three points if, for some reason, the offense can’t get closer than the 25.
UNDER THE VISOR: Shaw hit Busta Anderson over the middle while driving for a score before halftime, and Anderson, just like it was drawn up, popped the ball right back to Davis as he came running around the edge. The ol’ hook and lateral (or hook and ladder, which I prefer) play gave USC 15 yards on a drive that ended in a field goal, for a 24-7 halftime lead. The HBC still can surprise with the best of them.
NO. 99: Kelcy Quarles’ season was thus far an afterthought. Every time I saw him, he was either not being a factor on the field or limping off it. That changed last night. On the first drive of the third quarter, Quarles drilled Raymond Sanders with a side shot that tenderized his ribs. On the very next play, Jalen Whitlow was flushed as Quarles lost his helmet, yet kept pursuing and got the sack. You tell him that he’s supposed to stop if his helmet comes off. Quarles ended with six tackles, two for loss. He’s fixed.
COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE: Twitter and message boards are afire – and they should be – with yet another struggling performance in a game that should have been a rout. Spurrier put it best when his first comments upon entering the media room were, “We win! We win!” I’m not going to criticize anyone who is up in arms because it’s rather clear that the Gamecocks are not an elite football team. This could be a team that wins out to finish 11-1, this could be a team that finishes 8-4. There’s just no way of knowing how this team will play week to week, based on the early season. But USC is still winning. USC is 4-1, not 2-3. I know it takes a massive leap of faith or foreshadowing to say it, but suppose USC does this all season? Nobody in their right mind would be disappointed with an 11-1 season, where the team won ugly all year. It would become a case of, “Man, that team really played its best with its back to the wall.” Winning is winning, no matter if it feels like a loss or not. May not be easy to swallow, but at least it’s not a loss.
HUH?: Dylan Thompson was told he was going in on the fourth series, and Thompson went in on the fourth series. As it happened, it didn’t seem that bad. He got flushed out of the pocket due to no blocking and couldn’t make anything happen. It wasn’t until Kentucky later mounted its comeback that it became a glaring issue. USC was rolling under Shaw, scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions to take a 21-0 lead. Kentucky scored right after to make it 21-7, and that’s when Thompson came in. My thought was that it was strange to disrupt the rhythm, but at least he’d have Davis with him to smooth any rough edges. But then Shon Carson checked in at tailback. I think Thompson would have understood if he would have had to wait one more series, until USC got the game back under control. Keeping the promise shook up a trend where the Gamecocks were rolling, and brought to mind a juicy argument – all the complaints about not finishing a game, and that kind of decision?
SEE ABOVE: Quarles busts his tail to give the defense an early boost, and drops Whitlow for a sack. USC is naturally excited and is jumping all around, until Lorenzo Ward has to call timeout. Why? Because USC was still jumping around celebrating while Kentucky was lining up receivers, with at least five guys uncovered. Certainly doesn’t help the “focus” buzzword that is becoming stapled to this team.
THE DRAWING BOARD IS FULL, USE SOMETHING ELSE: I will say I thought the defense, overall, played pretty well. Kentucky was working the edges of the defense, sealing blocks for their screens and end-runners, and no defender is going to get through three charging blockers. There were no 70-yard passes (wheeeee?) The main thing was missed tackles. USC couldn’t square up anybody and another opponent’s Yards After Contact totals went through the roof. Then biting on the screen to leave a wide-open fade route for a touchdown late in the game drew memories of Randall Cobb in 2010. Put it this way – the Maalox people may offer you a discount if you buy in bulk.
NICE EYE. TAKE IT OUT AND CLEAN IT: Whitlow spied Demarco Robinson on the goal-line route and hit him in stride, and all Robinson had to do was fall forward. Victor Hampton told him, less than politely, no way, meeting him at the line and pushing him back for a stop. It was ruled a stop, and then the referees reviewed it. Robinson didn’t break the plane with the ball, his elbow barely grazing it. So the referee says that he extended the ball across the plane. He didn’t extend his finger, much less the ball, since he was being bear-hugged with his arms pinned to his sides. Just a terrible, disgusting call in so close a game. That one’s getting forwarded to the league office.
LIKE THERE WAS A PIE HANGING FROM THE CEILING: So USC is letting another game get too interesting, but it’s been moving the ball well. All it will have to do is get downfield and score, and there are no problems. Bruce Ellington takes the kickoff and has a great return, until he’s tackled and the ball is punched loose for a Kentucky-recovered fumble. That’s bad enough, a proven veteran and the best option at kick return laying the ball on the ground.
But the follies continue.
Whitlow threw incomplete on second down, because Jimmy Legree slapped the intended receiver silly by meeting him at the same time as the ball did. Great play. So why was Kadetrix Marcus picking up the ball and spiking it, which is a) stupid in any circumstance and b) silly when he had nothing to do with the play? Personal foul.
But the follies continue.
Whitlow again throws and Legree has an interception in his hands. Dropped it.
Kentucky scores a touchdown (on a wide-open route) two plays later.
You see how things just get out of hand?
OUCH: It’s the protocol of this business. You report what is factual. You write opinions based on fact. So naturally, the biggest storyline of last night’s game is awash this morning with a lot of opinions, none of which can ever be proven unless the subject says what’s on his mind.
That would be Jadeveon Clowney. And his bruised ribs, if they want to comment.
Here are the facts:
* Clowney walked into the locker room and then out for a brief pre-game walk-through. He waved hello to a gaggle of girls camped in the front row of the stadium, all armed with cameras to take his picture.
* Clowney missed practice on Thursday due to bruised ribs, but all the way up to kickoff, coaches expected him to play. He had been cleared to play.
* Clowney told Spurrier before kickoff that his ribs were hurting him too much to run, and he couldn’t play. Spurrier said OK. Clowney watched the game from the sidelines.
* Spurrier was obviously rather displeased with the decision, as taken from his post-game comments and reaction. All he had to say was, “Jadeveon has some bruised ribs, they make it painful for him to play, we thought it best for him to sit.” Spurrier offered without being asked that Clowney was sick before the UCF game. Instead, Spurrier talks about how if Clowney wants to play next week, they’ll gladly let him play. If not, he won’t.
Now, the opinions are out there in Twitter-verse, as expected. He’s mailing it in, saving himself for the draft, etc., etc. Everybody has their opinion, and it certainly doesn’t look good when this happens, and his own coach doesn’t defend it. Personally, I would have understood if USC had said the company line – he was hurting, we thought it best for him to sit. Whether it was “we don’t need to waste him against Kentucky” or not, that’s the line to say. USC did the same thing last year against Wofford – the line was that his foot hurt too much for him to play. What I was told from a team staffer when I asked if he was sitting because of the foot, was, “No, because it’s Wofford.”
The only person who knows what’s really going on is Clowney.
Spurrier was put in a no-win situation. Force him to play, and the player won’t like that and may hurt himself worse. Bless him out in public, and he may turn on you. No matter the actual numbers, Clowney helps USC win games. No way that Spurrier comes out the winner in that scenario.
I find it difficult to accept that he’s sitting with bruised ribs, when Shaw was taking painkillers and shots just to get on the field last year, and “lived in the treatment room” (his words) to get back on the field this week. But I also have no idea how much pain Clowney or Shaw was in – easy for me to sit here and judge when it’s two different players and two different circumstances. He says his ribs hurt, his ribs hurt. I don’t know any different, because he’s the only one who truly knows.
What I do know for sure is this is a black eye to Clowney’s reputation, even if he’s speaking the stark truth. It’s the kind of thing that he’s going to have to explain, sooner or later, and will dog him toward the end of this season no matter what he does. The coaches obviously were not going to give him an out – like they did with the stomach bug deal last week – and said as much. Spurrier and Ward each said that if he plays, he plays. They’re not going to wring their hands if he doesn’t, because they’ll have somebody ready to roll in there if not.
I know my opinion of it, and I’ll keep it to myself until I can find the facts to back it up. I will say, though, that those of you who follow me on Twitter or read my stuff know of my fierce devotion to my hometown of Rock Hill. We’re proud, loyal and passionate folks, forever supportive of our natives going out and doing well for themselves.
We are all truly hoping that we don’t have to change our thinking about one of the most famous.
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