David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s loss to LSU.
NO. 7 LSU 45, SOUTH CAROLINA 24
LUCKY NUMBER 13
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We can all stop talking about Matthew Thomas. Ever since 2002, which covers as many kickoff returns as Bruce Springsteen has songs, the Gamecocks could never find one guy to get a seam, a wedge, anything to take a kickoff return to the house. I always found it ironic that Chris Culliver left school as the career leader in kick returns and yardage, yet never once took one back. There’s finally a new guy to talk about after Rashad Fenton, on the first touch of his career, took a kick and shot nearly untouched through the gap. From there, it was straight speed to the sideline and into the end zone. Afterwards, he was nonchalant, saying he did it all the time in high school, while Steve Spurrier said he and his coaches were dummies for not putting him back there sooner (I covered "talent evaluation" in another GBU).
THE RIGHT IDEA
All week I was anxious to see how USC’s defense would approach this game. There could be none of the "Well, they’re expecting THAT, so we’ll do THIS" approach. LSU was going to run, so USC needed to stack the box and let Leonard Fournette come at it. If LSU expected it, fine. The Gamecocks still needed to do it. Surely he couldn’t get through all of them.
The plan worked. Fournette had a mere 49 yards at halftime. Gang-tackling was planned and executed. The Gamecocks dared Brandon Harris to beat them with his arm, and while he was much better than usual (USC’s Cover None Defense, the Heisman-Maker, is quite inefficient at taking away the forward pass), he didn’t win the game. It made me re-assess the thoughts on Jon Hoke’s scheme – it can work with the right plays, and he won’t run his look because that’s his look, regardless of results. Again, the plan worked.
Shamier Jeffery had three catches for 35 yards, the last a one-handed grab that was so flippin’ sick his brother said, "That was a great catch." To put that in perspective, he had eight for 41 in his first three years. The Gamecocks needed somebody besides Pharoh Cooper to step forward, and they needed Jeffery to live up to his immense potential, and they got both.
HAVE SOME MORE
LSU’s hospitality was incredible. The Tigers and their staff got every little detail right. They didn’t have to do anything, since I’m sure passing up their usual traditions didn’t matter in the slightest when it came to potentially jinxing the game. They did, and it was much appreciated. First-class operation and people, from the last security guard to athletic director Joe Alleva.
Landon Ard hit a chopper that Mookie Wilson would have been proud of and USC was going to stake its claim for the upset because of a perfectly called, and performed, onside kick. And then the referee called it back because D.J. Smith (he thought) was offside.
Smith was not offside. All that was was jealousy – that official is obviously not from the great city of Rock Hill (where Ard hails from) and wishes he was. Guy probably attended a region rival.
THE HORROR …
Previous musings have mentioned how ridiculous and amazing it is to see USC fall from a 33-6 program from 2011-13 to the current mess. And I sympathize with you fans … the agony of watching such a program go from that to 2-4 in less than 20 games links you with me and the Atlanta Braves, a dynasty B.C. (Bobby Cox) to a punchline F.G. (you figure it out).
But wherever you watched this one, you were at a place with a working TV or computer and you were alive. Don’t take that for granted, especially if you’re a South Carolina resident, this week.
And no matter what … there is still no term called "South Carolinaing."
Spurrier mentioned during his infamous "enemies" rant over the summer that because he had an off season (compared to the previous three), his critics were harping on his age. He pointed out that a couple of folks his age are running for President and that Mike Krzyzewski, also getting up there, won the last national championship.
Him bringing up the Head Devil is interesting. Krzyzewski won the last title by breaking from his usual approach. A guy who played man-to-man defense since he first picked up a ball switched to a lot of zone this year to suit his team’s strengths. He also leaned on his three star freshmen to lead, instead of his veterans. Krzyzewski coached to his team, not to his scheme.
With Spurrier – or whoever’s calling the plays these days – this still seems to be a major issue. It’s very clear the Gamecocks don’t have a lot of playmakers, so the coaches don’t have a lot to work with. What they need to do is give what they have as great a chance as possible to be successful, and they continue to not do it as effectively as they could.
Perry Orth has a bad habit of throwing high. Driving for a potential go-ahead score before the half, or at least a one-point deficit, Orth threw high over the middle, it glanced off Jerell Adams’ hands and was intercepted, leading to an LSU field goal. Why not give him routes where if there is a high pass, it goes out-of-bounds? That situation was huge for momentum and USC threw it away.
The Gamecocks drove downfield on their first drive and got a first-and-goal at the 3. Brandon Wilds was, um, "hurt," so USC’s running game was not a threat. Lorenzo Nunez was legitimately hurt, so the Gamecocks were limited.
Three straight pass plays, from a QB not great at passing. Orth airmailed Matrick Belton on a wide-open throw to the middle of the end zone. Not one Cooper play under center, not one Shon Carson run to the edge (which beat North Carolina), not one David Williams run off tackle which had at least a 50 percent shot of working.
Four extra points, as it turned out, probably wouldn’t have made anyone but Vegas happy. Could have given USC another spark, though.
Orth is a wonderful young man. He is not a difference-making quarterback. For him to be playing is an indictment of USC’s quarterback recruiting and development.
Nobody can predict injuries, and it should be noted if Connor Mitch doesn’t get hurt, maybe we’re not talking about this. But he did, and that put Orth into the role. He should never have been in a situation where he would be starting for an SEC team. He’s trying his best, but the Gamecocks are not going to have a chance to win if he’s asked to be the main guy. He has to have major help, and with Wilds "out," and the receivers still mostly missing, he doesn’t have it.
Problem is, because of injuries, recruiting and development, he’s the only option. Michael Scarnecchia hasn’t played enough and Nunez is hurt. So.
USC is 0-4 in the SEC for the first time since 1999. Anytime you have to compare anything to that stinker of a season, it’s not good.
You could see the cracks starting to appear when USC’s pass defense got into its familiar show-blitz-but-don’t-actually-do-it scheme. The corners dropped into a zone, Harris found men over the middle, Fournette got his one big run to break the Gamecocks’ backs. On that run, Jordan Diggs whiffed a tackle -- after he replaced Smith in the first quarter, whiffed another tackle and let a guy scamper down the sideline.
LSU’s tip-drill touchdown was a lucky break, but also because Al Harris’ man was running free down the field and was in position to grab it. The defense allowed conversions of second-and-18 and third-and-24 on a touchdown drive. They played very well in the first half and were tuckered out after Fournette’s long run. They finally broke after bending.
If the Gamecocks can get that kind of gumption for a whole game (we’ve seen it through entire halves), maybe they can stop a few opponents. Or maybe this was the result of playing a run-based team where the scheme simplified. Good opportunity next week.
I talked with Ellis Johnson the other day and he said USC’s biggest problem was it didn’t have the 10 big defensive plays per game. It was getting two or three and that wasn’t nearly enough. I saw what he was talking about Saturday.
Smith had his eye on a ball as soon as it left Brandon Harris’ fingers. He had an interception, but bumped into his own man on the leap and couldn’t bring it in. LSU ended up scoring.
On Fournette’s big run, T.J. Holloman left two fistfuls of jersey in the lead blocker’s mitts before Diggs was juked. Wasn’t called. The Smith offside. Wrongly called.
USC was winning 33, this stuff went its way. Not happening now.
Who knows what’s actually going on … but curiosities before and after the game are starting to raise eyebrows.
Wilds was cleared to play, dressed and announced as a starter. He didn’t play. Spurrier said he was hurt, that Wilds took himself out of the game. Spurrier didn’t sound pleased.
I’ve had a cracked rib. It hurts to breathe, so I can’t imagine taking a shot on that from a head-on tackler would exactly leave you merrily skipping back to the huddle. The problem is that Wilds was cleared to play by a doctor and dressed to play, and then didn’t play. Whatever the reason, this is the same guy who demanded to get the ball more a few games ago and has now been in any position but.
Is it Wilds’ fault the Gamecocks lost? Of course not. That other running back, the one in purple, had a whole lot to do with that. The Gamecocks got beat by a better team, which was expected whether or not Wilds played.
The problem is the perception it creates. Even through losses, this seemed to be a tight-knit team. None of the cliques and separations of last year. Now that’s being questioned.
This season was going to be hard enough without these kinds of issues. To have one player, and a star player at that, suddenly have his work ethic questioned is sending this season into another spiral.
The Gamecocks are running out of time to reverse it.
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