David Cloninger

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: North Carolina

Pharoh Cooper scores the Gamecocks’ first touchdown of the season.
Pharoh Cooper scores the Gamecocks’ first touchdown of the season. gmelendez@thestate.com

SOUTH CAROLINA 17, NORTH CAROLINA 13

THE GOOD

DEEP BREATHS …

After watching all the replays, re-living all the nervous, curious and rage-inducing moments and wondering just what was going on down there, South Carolina is 1-0. That’s one step closer to bowl eligibility with a game that could have gone either way.

And I’m not saying that bowl eligibility could, or will, be the limit this year. But it’s always a great place to start considering it sure didn’t happen all that often before The Visor got to town.

GROUND TO GRIND

The running game works. USC got 254 yards and averaged 5.4 per tote, and when it went to that sweep off right tackle, the Tar Heels’ defenders treated it like a real honest-to-goodness college class (it’s the Duke in me). Shon Carson emerged from four years of near-anonymity to win the game and give USC another dimension in its running game – Brandon Wilds (outstanding toughness late in the game) and David Williams can run over people, but if the Gamecocks are going to lean on the running game this heavily, they’ll need a change-of-pace back.

And it was encouraging, especially after some of the 2014 defensive meltdowns were aided by refusing to run the ball on offense, to bail on the passing game when it was clearly not working.

(By the way, I suggested we run "HEEEEEEEEERRREEEEE’S SHONNY!" as our top headline. All that was missing was Carson swinging an imaginary golf club)

MAKE IT HAPPEN

The defense, at least for one game, lived up to the billing – it has to be better because it couldn’t get much worse. While far from fully repaired, the Gamecocks got three takeaways and four sacks. Skai Moore continues to show why he’s one of the most underrated players in the country, squelching two Tar Heel drives by himself with end-zone interceptions. Kelsey Griffin led a battalion that got 10 less sacks than the team got all of last year.

It was far from perfect, but the defense adjusted at halftime and got big plays when it had to have them. That’s a lot of what happened during the 33 (AKA 2011-13).

HE RULES

Pharoh Cooper is quite enjoyable to watch in the game of foots and balls.

EYES ARE SMILING

Who’s Sean Kelly? Someone whose fan mail will surely increase. The Gamecocks’ first-year punter had a great day doing just his job (46.2 yards per kick) and an outstanding day doing some others’ jobs for them. He handled the first fake punt of his life with an untouched 17-yard scamper to move the chains, then made the tackle after UNC wisely installed a return man on a no-chance 57-yard field goal try.

And the special teams as a whole were good. Landon Ard blasted four kickoffs out of the end zone, Kelly only allowed one punt return and Elliott Fry hit one of two field goals (with the miss from 57).   

THE BAD

THE NEW GUY

Look, I knew Connor Mitch and a lot of other issues weren’t going to be fully judged after this game. As long as he didn’t Beecher the place up, there was always room to get better. So him being in the "Bad" doesn’t mean he’s beyond hope.

He did some really good things, settling in after his receivers cost him some completions with drops and playing very well in the zone-read keeper playbook. Mitch dialed some pretty passes as well.

The downside was the overall performance (9-of-22), some really overthrown routes (Cooper in the end zone that got Cooper banged up) and a straight lucky play (UNC dropped a pick-six in the first quarter). And then the taunt – all I saw was a motion to the sideline, maybe a head nod, if that. The refs said he said something. Mitch said he said, "What’s up?" Either way, it derailed a promising drive after he had just thrown a dart to Terry Googer for 22 yards. After that whatever-it-was, sack, incomplete, no gain, punt.

Quarterbacks have to have it together at all times. He was talking to his friend, in jest, no matter – the ref heard it and slapped Mitch, and his team.

HIT ’EM LOW

Again, the defense played decently. I’m not going to give it too much heat for leaving the middle of the field open because that’s what Jon Hoke’s system is designed to do. The main problems were the defensive backs giving far too much cushion to receivers who were designed to run quick outs, and then not tackling when they had them lined up.

Too many hits on the shoulder pads instead of the legs. Too many misses at the second level. Perhaps some of that was fatigue – Moore’s heaving chest could have been seen from Neptune, having to make every tackle clearly catching up to him. As good as the Gamecocks’ red-zone defense was – and I know a big maxim is "Run up and down the field all you want, as long as it’s between the goal lines" – UNC averaged seven yards per play on Thursday. USC gave up 6.1 yards per play in a historically bad 2014.

OLD YELLERS

Eight flags for 60 yards. Some were rather piddly – a freshman will make a freshman mistake (Kyle Markway false-started in the third quarter). Some could have been whistle-swallowers – I never saw any kind of personal foul in the first, when either T.J. Gurley or Isaiah Johnson was tagged for a late hit.

The biggest ones? Mitch’s taunt, a delay of game before the first play (the Antonio Heffner Special), another delay of game immediately after Markway’s false start that blew out another drive. Can’t have ’em.

GO TO THE SHEETS

Oy, play-calling. A burned timeout in the first half that left the Gamecocks short on their final drive (resulting in Fry being summoned for a 57-yard field goal) was somewhat excused – that drive started with Williams dropping a swing pass right in his hands. But then came the third quarter.

The zone-read got the Gamecocks back in the game. Mitch was getting beaten up, though, and I believe that’s why USC stepped back from it in the third quarter. That said, the Gamecocks come out throwing a lot, after the defense is starting to see results, and USC isn’t taking advantage of its opportunities.

Completed passes came attached to penalties. USC stayed away from the runs to the right that had worked so well. When the Gamecocks went back to it and Carson scored, USC again faced a situation that could have decided the game.

Fourth-and-1 with Mitch out of the game on the UNC 12? A field goal makes it seven points, so the worst that’s going to happen is the Tar Heels will score a touchdown and tie it. There should be time left on the clock in that eventuality to maybe get down and kick a field goal for the win. It’s the safe call.

It’s the right call.

USC went for it. Didn’t get it. Spurrier admitted he screwed up, which is easy to do when you get away with it (Moore gets an extra helping at training table this week). The defense was doing its job and those play-calls, the last in particular, nearly threw its contributions onto the scrap heap.

Coaching with his gut has won a lot of games over a lot of years. But for a team with issues at a lot of crucial spots, probability has to be a bigger part of Spurrier’s plans going forward.   

THE UGLY

THE RAZZIE FOR SUPPORTING ACTOR GOES TO …

Before the game, the Gamecocks’ receiving corps were Cooper and the Cooperaires. There was nothing to separate the fresh faces bidding for catches behind Cooper, but the thought was that somebody would rise during the game, to be the first Pip to sing alongside Gladys.

After the game, the Gamecocks’ receiving corps are still splitting the house gate after Diana Ross grabbed her share and split.

Deebo Samuel was targeted a couple of times and Mitch did guide one nearly into his hands … Carlton Heard was thrown to twice, three feet over his head when Cooper was open on the other side and once for a 6-yard loss … Shamier Jeffery was Shamier Jeffery. Only Googer showed up, catching two balls for 39 yards, one on a beautiful leaping stab after Mitch hit him on a rollout.

Now, Steve Spurrier Jr. said it was probably going to be like this. He had his top group of six, and knew that it hadn’t gone against anybody yet, and it was likely all players would get a chance this year since that’s USC’s system. Not like the last 10 years have had a bunch of no-names at receiver, and all of them got their shot after somebody else didn’t take advantage of his. So it was always going to be trial-and-error.

I’m sure he’s wishing he had a few more successes to lean on. Not many could separate, not many could find Mitch’s eye despite the offensive line blocking pretty well. Mitch wasn’t rushed that much. The drops didn’t help, either. I’d say it’s an open audition for next week.

But again … a win is a win.

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