David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s loss to Tennessee.
TENNESSEE 23, NO. 11 SOUTH CAROLINA 21
BEASTIE BOY: (And yes, if that or “Beastly Boy” becomes his nickname, I came up with it) Mike Davis (“Mike D! What you got for me ”) is really, really good. I don’t know if anyone thought he’d be this good so soon, especially knowing that his first year would be spent mostly as a backup role. The guy gets yards. Even on some busted plays, he got something. Somehow, he gets wrapped up and he just keeps pumping those two diesel-fueled pistons he calls legs, moving the pile and pushing it forward. Another 100-yard game, another cutback on a run that became a touchdown that was so flippin’ sick PlayStation ought to sue him for royalties. Another 140 yards to keep pushing that SEC-leading total. I’m stunned he isn’t mentioned more for Heisman Trophy consideration, and I’m stunned that he doesn’t get the ball more. Which is a point that will be repeated.
CLOWN PRINCE: Jadeveon Clowney has played (mostly) well all season, without the numbers to show for it. Being constantly double-teamed and yes, taking some plays off, will do that. On Saturday, he was in everybody’s face early and often. Tennessee decided to block him one-on-one, for some odd reason, and he responded with his best game of the year. His first two tackles for loss, where he burst through the line and enveloped some poor runner like the T-Rex mauling Ed Gennaro in “Jurassic Park,” were brutal. Yes, he got blocked off another sack, but he played a fine game. If anything, it proved that all of the “he’s checked out” talk is drivel for the talking heads which have to find something in which to fill three hours of broadcast time.
RIGHT THERE: All you can reasonably ask of a defense is to put the team in position to win. There are defenses that can be dominant, but on average, it’s on the offense to score and the defense to make sure that score lasts. USC, despite its struggles this year, did that on Saturday. The Gamecocks only allowed 325 yards and settled down to play a fine second half after two straight hurry-up possessions that got Tennessee two touchdowns. USC had 14 tackles for loss (it had 39 for the season before the game), broke up five passes and would have had a fumble, if the officials actually knew what they were doing. Kelcy Quarles picked a great time for the game’s only sack, when he dropped Justin Worley on third-and-20 with six minutes to play. Yes, the Marquez North catch won the game, but goodness, what a catch. It couldn’t have been defended any better. Sometimes, you just have to throw up your hands and say, “The guy made a play,” which is what Lorenzo Ward did. This loss isn’t on his troops.
ORNITHOLOGICAL: Damiere Byrd is becoming USC’s best wideout, after catching yet another deep pass and sprinting ahead of the defender for a long touchdown. He has really taken his development seriously and started to make the plays that were always there, but he could never harness. That one-on-one deep throw has been an outstanding play all season, and continues to be. Since it looks as if Dylan Thompson will be quarterback for at least one game, that can only help.
WHERE WAS IT: Over the last three years, USC has gotten a lot of big plays, “lucky” plays, whatever you want to call them, that meant the difference between winning and losing. Think of Antonio Allen jerking that fumble out against East Carolina in Charlotte and running for a TD, when the play should have been blown dead. Think of Clowney’s strip sack of Tyler Bray on the one play where Tiny Richardson didn’t block him. Think of Jimmy Legree intercepting that pass in the end zone against Vanderbilt. Against Tennessee, that big play was there to be made and it just didn’t. Why? Because North made a hell of a catch. Ahmad Christian couldn’t have covered it any better. That ball bounces away, hits off the hand, is an inch too high or too low, USC wins. But it didn’t. Stuff like that that falls directly in line with what Steve Spurrier said on Sunday – USC has won a lot of close ones, and we all know you don’t win all the close ones all the time.
PSYCHE: You knew it would happen. We all asked several questions this week about why Connor Shaw’s been so good at not throwing interceptions this year. It’s like a countdown clock was on his arm from then on. Sure enough, he rolls left and tries to get a pass over two DBs to a receiver while throwing across his body. Picked.
THE LETTER OF THE RULE: It’s a stupid rule, as everybody has voiced. It was designed to fail, when the motto of it was, “When in doubt, throw him out.” So when Kadetrix Marcus nailed Pig Howard with a textbook form tackle, but (it looked to me) Howard ducked his head into Marcus’ helmet, that’s a targeting foul and an ejection. Three SEC players were each ejected for the same foul before 1 p.m. on Saturday. But, it’s the rule, and it won’t change this year. USC lost an experienced free safety and had to replace him with Chris Moody and T.J. Gurley, who tried their best but weren’t starting for a reason. Later on, Legree blasts a receiver at the knees, which could have been a serious injury. But THAT’S OK.
YOU GUYS : Trailing 17-7, USC was driving the ball but stalled out at the 27-yard-line. Elliott Fry was summoned to kick and missed a 45-yarder. Tennessee tried to make something happen but had an incomplete pass, so after a USC timeout, it ran the ball with Rajion Neal. The play was blown up, and Neal was going down, so he did what many of us would do – he panicked and tried to make a play happen, by throwing the ball in the general direction of Worley. That was a fumble, nothing else, and USC recovered, which meant it could get another shot at a score before halftime. But no, the officials ruled that it was an incomplete pass. An. Incomplete. Pass. If it was any kind of pass, it was grounding. And it wasn’t a pass, it was a desperation move that became a fumble. But Neal was rewarded for being foolish with the ball, because apparently, that call had never been called before and it was high time it was. Steve Shaw, line one.
YOUNG STAD: Look, Clayton Stadnik has been mostly wonderful this year. He came in when it was very clear that he was second-string for a reason and played like a champion when Cody Waldrop was out. Saturday was his first bad game. He bad-snapped one to Shaw that Shaw lost, he rolled another one to him that blew up a play and he high-snapped a few others. He also couldn’t hear over the din of a non-sold-out Neyland Stadium to snap the ball, and couldn’t see Shaw stomping his foot like he was trying to shiv a Palmetto bug. Spurrier was hopeful on Sunday that it was just a one-game thing.
THIRD DOWNS BECOME FIRST DOWNS: Tennessee only converted five of 17 third downs, but all of them were killers. Marcus got ejected on a third-and-5, on a completed 12-yard pass, and that led to a field goal. Christian got hit for pass interference, and Clowney facemasked on a tackle for loss, to give UT two more third downs on the way to a touchdown. Quarles horse-collared Worley on third-and-11 where Worley already had the first. Then the North catch on third-and-10. The phrase “getting out of your own way” comes to mind.
STICKUM: Shaq Roland dropped. Davis dropped. Bruce Ellington dropped. Shaw had good reason to go full Philip Rivers on his receivers.
BROKEN BEYOND REPAIR: USC’s special teams have never been particularly grand. It was pretty bad last year but the wizard that was Ace Sanders covered a lot of holes. Without him around, it’s just so, so awful. Landon Ard is making a habit of booming the opening kickoff out-of-bounds, while aiming for the corner. It’s been proven he can kick it out of the end zone, so why not aim for the middle? The Gamecocks just can’t get a clean return or a clean tackle on a return without a hold or a block-in-the-back, one of which robbed Pharoh Cooper of a great return. Fry finally missed a field goal, on a kick that was well short of the posts. Cooper, on kick and punt return, didn’t catch a ball the same way twice – he let the first one bounce right by him, then caught another one at the 5. He nabbed another with his hands above his helmet instead of cradling it. Tyler Hull averaged 36.2 yards on eight punts, and “booted” one 23 yards from his own 12 in the fourth quarter of a 21-20 game. Spurrier is frustrated, and I don’t blame him. Coach Joe Robinson will not accept media requests about the unit as a whole. It’s just so, so awful (it bears repeating).
WHAT?: You knew it was coming. Here it is.
This game was ugly. USC played pretty badly, seeing its offense stuffed by a defense ranked 11th in the SEC coming in, and stuffing itself as well with bad throws and no blocking. An injury to Ronald Patrick played into that, and the small letdowns of an overall good defensive day did as well.
But despite all of that, USC was ahead 21-17, with the ball, at the UT 45, at the beginning of the first quarter. The Gamecocks should have won, and set themselves up for a big-time showdown at Missouri next week, SEC East title (most likely) on the line.
They didn’t, and the reason why was on the sideline.
This reminds me so much of the Auburn game in 2011, the one that really ended up turning the season around, since it got Stephen Garcia out and Shaw in. As my friend and colleague Michael Haney said then, “it’s the kind of game where fingers get pointed.” That’s what Saturday was.
What was Spurrier thinking?
With a chance to step on the throat at the beginning of the quarter, there were three straight pass plays called. Two were incomplete and Shaw was sacked on the third. It didn’t end up hurting USC because even after Tennessee hit a field goal to make it 21-20, Quarles got his big sack to get the ball back with 5:44 to play.
Starting on his 12, Shaw tried to throw a wheel route to Davis that was a little too far out front and a little too low, and incomplete. That play has worked this season before, and not worked. Each time, it seemed a very risky move – that’s a pick-six waiting to happen if the throw is just a little off. Then Shaw dropped to pass, tried to run and was hit, the play where he was hurt. Thompson entered and threw for 5 yards to get a little room, and Hull got USC out of some danger with a 40-yard punt. Spurrier said on Sunday that he was looking at the defense (designed to stop Davis) and thinking of some of the throws hit earlier.
Again, the Gamecocks held, ironically when a third-down pass to North was incomplete, with Christian on the coverage. USC had the ball at its 18 with 3:16 to play.
Davis ran for 2 yards, Davis was stood up, Thompson ran for 6. Tennessee used a timeout between each play, leaving it none. USC faced fourth-and-2, broke the huddle to go for it, then called timeout.
Perfectly understandable. Shaw was out, and UT was planning for a Davis run. That’s a long two yards. The Gamecocks called time to talk it over, and assumedly spoke about three options.
1. Punt and hope the defense holds again.
2. Go for it. If you don’t make it, UT has the ball at the 26 and can kick an easy field goal to go ahead. The positive of that is that USC would still have some time to try and get in its own field-goal range, with a quarterback that has been known to hit some deep throws.
3. Go for it, make it, run out the clock (or pretty close to it).
They decided to go for it.
And then called another timeout.
This is the sticking point. It seemed that Spurrier had made up his mind that options 2 or 3 were the best. And Davis, who had 137 yards at the time and was averaging 6.5 a carry, had a good thing working for him – the Vols stopped him a few times, but they couldn’t do it every down. He had carried the ball three times in the quarter. He had picked up a fourth-and-1 last week, getting 7 yards when he drove three defenders backward. The receivers weren’t getting open, and Shaw was out of the game. Not that Thompson couldn’t complete a pass, but he was cold off the bench and asking him to make a throw there was risking a bit too much. By calling another timeout, USC was losing them for a potential drive later on.
Spurrier said he punted because he didn’t like the defensive look. Again, though, it could have been Davis for 2 yards. One good block and he can basically ride a lineman’s legs to the first down. Not even a chance, especially when a TO could have been saved with some time, if UT got that quick field goal? Or maybe just a re-adjustment of the play-call, on that second timeout?
The Gamecocks punted. Did that by itself cost them the game? No way. North’s third-down catch, one where he channeled Jerry Rice, did that. That catch doesn’t happen, the punt is questioned but accepted because USC wins.
“I still think that was the right thing to do, to punt it,” Spurrier said. “If it had been fourth-and-1, we’d probably have gone for it. But hindsight’s always 20-20.”
It is indeed. North made the catch. USC lost. The SEC’s leading rusher wasn’t given a chance to salt the game away.
Spurrier said he lost a lot of sleep on Saturday.
Many others did as well.
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