David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s win over UCF.
SOUTH CAROLINA 31, UCF 14
I’VE SEEN THE FUTURE AND IT WORKS
(Any day is a good day when you can drop a Prince lyric first thing)
Lorenzo Nunez. After some early struggles throwing the ball (and I mean struggles), the freshman settled in and played very well. He was marvelous on third down, terrific at the Connor Shaw Scramble and restored hope to an offense that was seeking a Martha to rise from a crop of Vandellas. He didn’t make any horrible mistakes, and then he charmed the crowd afterward by saying of his crucial block on Pharoh Cooper’s touchdown run, "He looked like he was kind of scared," referring to the defender he locked up. He doesn’t have the blonde mane, but he has the mouth of Steve Taneyhill, the last true freshman to win his first career start.
WHATCHU GONNA DO?
When Hollomania runs wild on you? I’d say moving T.J. Holloman to middle linebacker worked. He was all over the place, creating pressure, picking off two passes and generally making life miserable for anyone dressed in white. Lorenzo Ward put it simply – Holloman is a natural middle, and he couldn’t get on the field with the stupendous Skai Moore in front of him, so they moved Moore to WLB. Moore was a little feisty that Holloman got his interceptions (Moore has a shot of setting the school’s career record) but the two mainstays in the middle did what Steve Spurrier hoped – they told the team, "Hey, we can play defense a little."
BETWEEN SECOND AND FOURTH
The Gamecocks converted seven of 16 third-down opportunities.
Even when he plays bad, he plays good. Pharoh Cooper turned the game around by doing what he does – making something out of nothing and adding to his highlight tape (which must be on its fourth reel by now). After dropping a touchdown and helping give UCF hope in the first half, Cooper turned a busted play into a tackle-shredding touchdown run and then caught another TD pass where he soared into the air, defenders on his back, and cradled the catch between his knees as if that’s what he planned to do.
Which he probably did.
Sean Kelly may be the best punter in the country this year. He consistently bails the Gamecocks out of trouble and is so accurate it’s like he’s throwing darts. "Want it between the 112th and 113th blade of grass on the 2? No problem!"
SPEAKING OF …
The Gamecocks forced their first first-half punt of the season on Saturday.
The "Rabbits" package of a few years ago has been re-named "Green." It certainly paid dividends on Saturday. Installing Shameik Blackshear and Boosie Whitlow on certain downs really helped, Whitlow recording a safety. As much (deserved) scorn the Cover-2 has received for leaving the middle of the field wide-open, Jon Hoke has correctly said that if USC had a pass-rush, it wouldn’t be so inviting. The two newbies helped prove it.
Hope has been restored. The sun shines a little brighter, the bacon tastes a little better, the beer cooler is always stocked. USC won, nobody was hurt and considering how Missouri looked Saturday night, next week is anything but already decided. Of course the Gamecocks should have won, of course the defense had to look better against an offense that was the worst in the country coming in.
If you’re thinking that, re-watch the first half.
CALL THE HEALERS
As much promise as Nunez showed and as much hope was restored, USC’s chances of success this season hinge on Brandon Wilds and his cracked rib. The Gamecocks really, really need him to be healthy, and soon.
In one sense, it was good that Wilds was out. That forced Nunez to throw more and get the early kinks out of the way so he could begin the process of tightening his mechanics. He showed what he could do in the running game and when Wilds comes back, it gives USC one more dimension on offense. There is a lot of room to experiment offensively with a healthy Wilds.
Yet if he doesn’t come back, comes back at less than full strength or is hurt again, USC might be back to struggling. It won’t take long for tape of Nunez’s strengths to circulate. He’ll have to try to keep running because Shon Carson isn’t an every-down back and David Williams didn’t do anything against UCF until he was going against a dog-tired defense. The opponents, like UCF did early, will cram eight in the box on every play and spy on Nunez, while the Gamecocks’ backs will struggle for running room.
Bury a dishrag under a full moon? Toad larvae? Visiting shaman? Whatever’s your pleasure of home remedy, let the training staff know.
YEAH, BUT …
The defense was very improved and disguised its coverages better. A lot of its success came from UCF not doing the things it did to earn that lead at halftime.
The Gamecocks were showing a lot of blitz early and then dropping into zone, and it worked about as well as its pass defense has all year – not very. The slants were there all day and the Gamecocks could not stick with their receivers. So after Bo Schneider marched the worst offense in major football downfield and ended with a 30-yard touchdown strike, UCF comes out in the second half and … runs the ball.
The Knights had 7 rushing yards in the first half. The Gamecocks were stuffing the run. So why they felt the answer, again after proving that USC’s pass defense couldn’t stop a breeze-blown Kleenex, was to run the ball, I have no idea.
USC won and the defense looked improved. Still a long, long way to go.
YEAH, BUT … II
The Gamecocks forced their first first-half punt of the season on Saturday. It was the fourth game.
LIFE IS NOT KIND
To Al Harris. He’s overmatched out there and when he gets a break, it breaks the opposite way. UCF was eating him alive on the slants and when the Gamecocks finally forced a pressured throw to the flat, Harris had a perfect bead on the interception. He dropped it. Late in the game, UCF again cast into the secondary, Isaiah Johnson had a pick sure as Sunday. Harris bumped into Johnson and the ball fell to the turf.
THE MAN WHO COULD DO TOO MUCH
As brilliant as Cooper was in the second half, his first half may have been the worst of his career. He let a perfect end-zone spiral slip through his hands, and then the punt "return." Oh my, that punt return.
I get that maybe he heaped pressure on himself to do anything he could to help this team out, but Punt Return 101 says to staple your heels to the 10 and don’t go beyond. Nothing good’s going to happen there. Yet Cooper began backpedaling, and then he dropped it.
He redeemed himself, clearly. Would have been better if he didn’t have to.
Nunez had just gotten comfortable and USC was leading after Whitlow’s safety. By getting the ball back, USC could go up at least eight points.
Perry Orth entered. He threw there straight incompletes. UCF immediately scored (helped by Cooper’s fumble).
A friend of mine put it best with Orth. He’s a great kid, for sure, but talent-wise, "stop trying to make fetch happen."
Didn’t seem there were a lot of short, safe screen passes for Nunez to get acclimated.
AND ONE MORE TIME
It turned out OK, because Williams got 3 yards. But when facing a fourth-and-1 with 5:36 to go while up 14, the smart play would have been to kick. The Gamecocks got the first down, and Elliott Fry later kicked, but there, with that kind of time, nearly guaranteed points are a lot better than the alternative.
Which we saw three straight times in the fourth quarter last year.
USC still has to play a complete game. So far, its most complete game has been Georgia, where it was equally awful in each half.
The other three games have been a lethargic first half and great second half. Whatever wonder solution is around at halftime needs to be supplied on Fridays. Switch hotels, take a different route to the stadium, eat chicken instead of steak. There has to be some kind of gumption earned running through those tunnels and USC has yet to display it until it’s nearly been too late.
GREAT WIN! DON’T LOOK
Hope has been re-harnessed. After a win, anything’s possible.
Now comes the hard part.
Six straight SEC games. Three on the road. Missouri was humbled Saturday by Kentucky and will doubtless be peeved about it. Leonard Fournette has led LSU to the top of the SEC West and himself to the top of the Heisman favorites. As bad as Vanderbilt is offensively, its defense is rather impressive. It certainly appears that Kevin Sumlin will collect those 10 clams that he and Spurrier bet on who would have the better defense. Tennessee has won two straight over USC and is licking its wounds after seeing two fourth-quarter leads Tennesseed (instead of Clemsoned) into oblivion. Florida, yes, is undefeated.
Then there’s that whole rivalry thing.
Hope can be lost as quickly as it was gained.
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