David Cloninger

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Missouri

It was another rough day for Lorenzo Nunez and the Gamecocks’ offense.
It was another rough day for Lorenzo Nunez and the Gamecocks’ offense. dmclemore@thestate.com

David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s loss to Missouri.

MISSOURI 24, SOUTH CAROLINA 10

THE GOOD

I’LL DRIVE THE BUS

It’s the only thing Pharoh Cooper isn’t doing these days. I’m getting to the point of feeling sorry for him – sorry that he’s sacrificing everything he has to win and it being futile, and sorry that he’s spending an All-American campaign with this F Troop of a football team. Yeah, there was that pass interference call late in the game, and it was the right call, but how many times do you see that not called? (Answer: A lot, but these officials missed a lot, a topic we’ll get to shortly.) Cooper had another marvelous game, boogieing all over the field when his first and second options were null because his mentality is there’s always a way to move forward with the ball. I don’t think he’ll be playing a lot of quarterback going forward, or at least how some fans think he should be playing quarterback; the season’s dire enough without him risking his future pro career by taking that kind of punishment. He’s not going to demand to play QB, not going to demand some of the other receivers to stand up, not going to demand anything except maybe an extra serving of steak at the training table. The phrase "suffering in silence" comes to mind.

NOT BAD

Lorenzo Nunez played pretty well despite having no running game, no receivers beside Cooper and his line not offering much protection from an aggressive Missouri defense. He’s still at the point where his mistakes are truly freshman mistakes – taking a sack early, throwing interceptions late, not sliding on a run, etc. He’s the Gamecocks’ best option going forward – outside of being down two scores in the fourth, when a stronger passer like Perry Orth may be the best call – and Nunez will learn. Here’s hoping he finds somebody to improve with him.

HIGH

Noon kickoffs are terrific, aren’t they? Got the whole rest of the day to relax and enjoy football, the house, your significant other … or imbibe the pain away with your choice of grill item or libation. Get used to the nooners, too – LSU starts at noon, I would bet my house on the Vanderbilt game being the same and the way this team is playing, I can’t see prime time lining up to present it.

IT REALLY WAS

The defense had a great start. Al Harris made a tackle out of tight coverage. T.J. Gurley shed his block on a screen and one-armed his man to the ground. The rest made some really good plays, outside of third down. It was set up to be a landmark game.

THE CURSE OF THE ROCK M

Missouri had to be thinking what more can it do to escape the house of horrors that is the north end zone of Faurot Field. A place that has seen so much heartbreak was causing more, when the Tigers dropped an interception and Shon Carson was standing right there to pluck it and score. Add it to the list of things that have gone wrong in that stretch of real estate – it’s like a Bermuda Rectangle.  

THE BAD

(Cracks knuckles and finds the arthritic balm)

GOOD. LORD.

I’m still mystified why USC stubbornly sticks to the same defensive alignment. Now, I get that this is Jon Hoke’s system. I get that overall, the numbers aren’t horrendous (the only stats that matter are points given up, and USC’s OK there). I get that by design, the Cover-2 is doing what it’s supposed to do. What I don’t get is why Hoke and Company do not try something different when something clearly is not working.

Again (Hey, Whammy!), USC trying to un-learn one system and learn another in midseason is not a good idea (See Season, 2014). But man, how many times are the Gamecocks going to watch themselves get beat by the same plays? Short, quick passes, which have led their last two opposing SEC quarterbacks to complete 45-of-53 throws. Montana, Elway and Luck couldn’t do that if they had an empty field in front of them (OK, Joe could). For crying out loud, play some guys closer to the line and bump the receivers. What more do you have to lose?

Drew Lock never looked left on seven consecutive pass attempts. Not once. He stared right when he crouched, he stared right on the snap, he stared right as he backpedaled. He stared right as the guy caught it with nobody in a white jersey around for a first down. There was no pressure on him from the blind side and damn sure nobody forcing him to check down. One of the country’s worst offenses faced second-and-at-least-14 twice on one drive and still finished in the end zone.

Tackling wore down as the game went on, mostly because USC fit its runs about as well as a Southern drawl fits in a Boston pub. I saw Darius English look at Ish Witter as he got through the line and only start to move to tackle him after Witter ran past him. That represented a good effort, considering the rest of the line’s performance.

I know talent is an issue, but to not try something different when there are clearly telegraphed weaknesses reeks of NFL stubbornness. As in, "If I had my guys, it’d be working."

Ain’t got your guys.

FULLBACK DIVE

^That’s the safest and most efficient play in USC’s playbook right now (at least, it would be if they’d give Garrison Gist some playing time). The Gamecocks don’t have many other options.

Through five games, there are still no dependable wide receivers beside Cooper. USC brought in a freshman class of wideouts that was deemed to be the future, yet isn’t playing them in favor of walk-ons or former walk-ons. Steve Spurrier has always said if the first guy isn’t performing, time to give the next guy a shot. That next time is past due and there are still the same guys not doing anything every week.

Nunez threw three bad interceptions (and Missouri dropped two more, along with dropping an Orth pass). He was rattled by the Tigers’ pass-rush but I’m not going to dog him too much – he’s a kid still learning how to throw because he didn’t do it in high school, and he’s been better than advertised, especially on third down. The problem is the USC coaches knew the offense was going to struggle and didn’t help him out as much as they could have.

Where are the quick screens? Where, when they knew Brandon Wilds wouldn’t play and therefore had no real running threat, were the two-tight end sets to provide extra protection and blocking? What was this strategy of running up the middle with Shon Carson, a whiz at finding holes on the edge but a Smurf among Gargamels in the middle of the field, on first down to get stuffed and then have to throw a deep pass, which led to interceptions? What was this tease of playing up-tempo, which worked, then abandoning it?

It seems that on offense, USC has only a general idea of what it wants to do. It has no idea how to do it. I don’t think play-calling has that much to do with it – as in one guy should do it and therefore get the praise or blame – as it is talent. Nunez and Cooper are the only two playmakers. Kind of limited with what you can do with them and nobody else has volunteered to fill a shift.

ROLLERS

Zack Bailey had his first bad snaps. It was bound to happen. He played extremely well at a position he never played in his life and it was going to catch up. But he’ll be OK.

DITTO

Sean Kelly was bound to have a lousy punt someday, too. It was Saturday, when his 17-yard shanker landed out of bounds and gave Missouri great field position for its first touchdown drive.

STUPENDOUS

I can’t fathom how this league can be so good in football and so lousy at policing it. Every official huddle Saturday was a five-minute discussion, and the decisions these guys made …

USC didn’t lose because of bad calls, but it’s hard enough for this team to win without fighting the guys in stripes. Cedrick Cooper had Lock around the knees in the end zone. Lock got rid of the ball into the flat with no man near it. That’s either intentional grounding for a safety or an incomplete, which puts the ball back at the line of scrimmage (the 10).

Ref said he was down at the 1. Not the original line, not in the end zone, the 1. Said he didn’t need to review it when Spurrier asked, and sent his assistant to talk to the coach because he couldn’t be bothered. Photo evidence shows that Cooper had Lock nearly down with black end-zone turf under them, not green field turf. Lock’s knee never hit at the 1. But these guys realized they threw a flag for something and split the difference – which is not a rule, but they sure made it one.

Spurrier was rightly peeved about the phantom calls and I truly hope the SEC tries to make a case about it by fining him (coaches are not supposed to talk about how godawful the referees are). Even in this day of Spurrier fending off barbs from every side, USC’s faithful would gladly pay that fine, most in dollar bills with tender messages scrawled in the empty spaces.

It was par for the course when the refs reviewed Cooper’s magnificent catch – but only after wiping out a David Williams run to the 1, which started BEFORE they blew the whistle – and said, "It was a good catch."

No kidding.

HIGH

Noon kicks are also bad. That’s time for John Q. Fan to log onto the ol’ Interwebs and fire away at whatever he pleases.

Fans have a right to be ticked off right now. I’ve covered that issue numerous times. The talent level on this team, whether it was recruiting misses or simply not recruiting as well as previously, is substandard. The play calls are frustrating because they don’t subscribe to what’s the best chance to win. To watch this defense play this coverage is like inserting bamboo slivers under each fingernail, one millimeter at a time.

But we in the media tire of being asked the same questions by the public and reading the same online vitriol when we’ve made it clear what will and won’t happen. So at the risk of becoming ad nauseum, here I go again:

Ray Tanner is not making a change midseason. He is not looking at a potential list of coaches. Spurrier will leave when he’s ready to leave, on his own terms, which is certainly something he’s earned. Spurrier will also decide on any staff changes under him with no input from Tanner. Screaming at me, my colleagues, the athletic department and your mother isn’t going to change that. The season will be judged when it’s over, and we’ll see what Spurrier does. You ask me, I think there’s a better chance of him leaving on a winning season than a losing one.

I also know that there is no way to predict what he’ll do. For the past five years, whenever I’ve been asked, I’ve always said, "Could be tomorrow. He’ll wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and that’ll be it. He could also say that next decade."

The next game promises to have a lot of time after it to self-medicate. Please put the keyboard down and do so.  

THE UGLY

DUM, DUM, DUM-DUM

(That’s the theme from "Dragnet")

Saturday might have been the first nail in the coffin of a bowl-less season. I say might because mathematically, the Gamecocks can still pull out of this nosedive.

Realistically, I’m looking at LSU, Texas A&M, Clemson and one more mistake and it’s home for Christmas.

The Gamecocks are running out of chances to salvage this season. While they may beat The Citadel and Vanderbilt (which has a strong defense), they have to get two more. Tennessee is bad, but that’s on the road. Florida suddenly seems the team to beat in the East. Even with stats aside, does anyone look at those and think the Gamecocks can win?

I used to. I don’t now. USC could have beaten a Missouri team that is not good. It should have beaten a Kentucky team that had to go to overtime to beat Eastern Kentucky. It didn’t either time.

There aren’t injured players (outside of Wilds) who are going to return and make that big of a difference. There doesn’t seem to be much hope of the offense finding another playmaker or the defense trying to adjust, because that hasn’t happened at nearly the halfway point. In previous seasons, you could see a break or two meaning a turnaround. In this season, the breaks are going against the Gamecocks. While nothing is over, the wish of USC finding some magical solution to reverse the skid looks to end like most wishes do.

On the plus side, basketball practice starts Monday. See you guys at the Colonial?

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