David Cloninger

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Vanderbilt

Shawn Elliott closes in on his first career win as a head coach.
Shawn Elliott closes in on his first career win as a head coach. gmelendez@thestate.com

David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s win over Vanderbilt.

SOUTH CAROLINA 19, VANDERBILT 10

THE GOOD

THIS IS MY TOWN

You could have used pliers and not gotten that smile off Shawn Elliott’s face. A South Carolina native who grew up coming to USC games and wanting to one day play or coach there had his dream come true, and he walked out of his first game as head coach with a win. Nobody would have blamed him if he’d have lost – no matter how much emotion and energy he infused into the Gamecocks, the talent was the same that spawned a 2-4 record before Saturday – and it would have been natural to expect a letdown considering the events of the week.

But the Gamecocks’ effort and give-a-damn was the best it was all season, and they played just well enough not to lose. At least for a moment, the events of the first six games and of the former coach walking away rather than be anchored to a sinking ship could be forgotten. Elliott nearly broke down talking about the impact of Steve Spurrier on his life, and his pre-game tribute of raising a visor to the sky as he led the team out was magnificent. And then he said that he’s just a simple small-town guy who’s going to work as hard as he can to succeed, because he never had anything handed to him and it’s the only thing he ever wanted to do.

Seriously … couldn’t you just cry?

THE EXCELLENCE OF EXECUTION

Look, I know how ridiculous it is to think uniforms win or lose games. But you’re reading the same guy who wore the same ballcap for 15 years because my favorite all-time team won over 1,500 games, 14 division titles, five pennants and one by-God world championship while I was wearing it. You never mess with a winning streak, and you don’t tempt fate by doing things that have losses attached to them – which is why I was floored when the Gamecocks announced they were wearing all-black.

Did they not remember Tennessee last year? Or the five games before that, where if they wore some form of black, they lost? It would have been different if those games were all against Tim Tebow, but only one was. Having talked equipment before the season, I figured the black unis were coming, but against The Citadel – i.e., the game most likely not to be lost.

Again, I realize it’s silly to think there’s a jinx on uniforms. Then again, you can’t prove uniforms didn’t have anything to do with it. Either way, the streak was broken, and the black jerseys looked great, and with the pink trim attached, the Gamecocks resembled 11 Bret "Hitman" Harts at any one time. For one game at least, the black uniforms were the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be.

And anything that gets more AC/DC into the conversation – #BackInBlack is the hashtag and "Hells Bells" was played on third downs – could never be a negative.

BYE

Pharoh Cooper has train tracks on his sideburns, and leaves them on opposing defenders. Never thought I’d see anybody better than Alshon … who I said I never thought I’d see anybody better than Sidney … who I said I never thought I’d see anybody better than Sterling.

GOTTA GO FAST

The hurry-up quick-tempo offense wasn’t just a passing fancy as it has been the last two games, and Elliott said there will be more of it. Yes, it has its problems (again, talent didn’t morph into Connor and The Shaws) but there was one noticeable difference.

Everyone looked like they knew what they were doing. There was no calling a play, looking at the sideline, calling a play, looking at the sideline, hurriedly motioning the play and then throwing incomplete. There was one plan, one play to run and one snap count.

It may not have worked all the time, but there was a script that was followed. The previous six weeks was the 2015 version of "Who’s on first?"

HAWKIN’

As maligned as Jon Hoke’s Cover-2 has been, it’s designed to get turnovers from the guy in the middle. The Gamecocks intercepted three passes and recovered two fumbles, many to squelch Vanderbilt drives when it was still a one-score game. Bryson Allen-Williams played the best game since he enrolled, in relief of T.J. Holloman.

UNDER A CAROLINA …

Skai Moore. He has a shot at a USC record (14 career interceptions; he’s three off a tie) but if there’s a way to quantify best overall defender USC has ever had, he has to be on the short list. The man is everywhere on the field.

REAL DEAL NEAL

D.J. Neal had four catches for 49 yards, and a touchdown until it was jarred out on the landing. His talent was apparently overlooked in the wake of walk-ons or former walk-ons during the first six games.

BELIEVE

It’s one win, and not a particularly convincing one. It could be argued that USC lost a contest for worst team in the SEC (the ultimate backhanded compliment). The talent is threadbare, the schedule remains brutal and the archrival keeps winning and looking good doing it.

Yet it’s hard not to think, even for a second, that just maybe … it could happen.   

THE BAD

DUCK AND COVER

That’s a more accurate name for USC’s defensive philosophy. I realize it’s supposed to leave the middle of the field open. The reasoning is it works because pass-rushers force the quarterback into throwing over the middle, where that middle linebacker waits for a turnover.

USC has no pass-rush. The Gamecocks refuse to play closer to the line to try to make it more difficult for receivers to get open. They always do and catch the quarterback’s eye, because he’s not getting pressured. It’s why Georgia, Missouri and Vanderbilt each saw receivers running wide-open on underneath routes, which USC was more than happy to give them by playing back on passing downs.

It’s a good thing that completion percentage really doesn’t mean that much. Or so I’m told.

BLACK ZONE

The Gamecocks get within the 20 and turn into (your term here). Their touchdown productivity is basically reduced to zero if Cooper doesn’t break a long play. Vanderbilt is a good red-zone defense, but the Gamecocks have played a lot of teams who can’t say that and had the same issues. The offensive line is having trouble opening holes for its tailbacks, and with Perry Orth under center, there isn’t much threat of a QB run. Orth air-mailed Jerell Adams on a touchdown; Cooper dropped another one.

What stood out to me – is Cooper prohibited from running Wildcat there? He couldn’t have done it one time to try to shake things up, especially when a touchdown could have made the result a lot less in question? And it surely doesn’t help that when asked what the problem was, Orth answered, "I don’t know, honestly. I really don’t."

Touchdowns treat the Gamecocks like curveballs treated Cerrano’s bat.

CLEAN-UP ON AISLE 10

Orth is a fantastic kid, and I realize there aren’t a lot of other options these days. He actually had pretty good numbers Saturday. Problem is there’s only so much USC can depend on him to do, and if Lorenzo Nunez and Connor Mitch are out (like Saturday), the Gamecocks should take their chances with Cooper under center.

Running zone-read with Orth (although he should have waited for Brandon Wilds to get that block in the red zone) was a disaster. He also threw a pick that could have meant the game, had Johnny McCrary not found Chris Lammons on the very next play. He’s serviceable, and that’s good enough to beat Vanderbilt. But there’s only so much he can do, and against Texas A&M, Tennessee, etc., good enough won’t be good enough.

PART OF THE FAMILY

Adams is a great tight end, able to break open games at any time. You’d think he could get the ball more.

BULLS-EYE

The targeting rule in college football is like most rules in the game -- good-intentioned and bad-policed. It got Holloman thrown out for the second half and I understand how it looked, but I also think the Vanderbilt receiver sold that one by staying down longer than he had to.

There’s no way to call this stuff except by human decision. At least, not without letting Skynet become self-aware and then former California governors start traveling back in time to save John Connor. It needs to be re-examined, but I’m not sure how – you can’t drop it and have helmet-to-helmet collisions abound, and you can’t make it a hard-and-fast helmet+helmet=ejection, either.

PICK A SIDE

David Williams is so good sometimes and so brain-scrambling frustrating at other times. The 2-yard losses where he won’t lower his pads and charge into a hole are nearly trumped by the strong runs and screen passes turned into long gains.

Then there are the long gains that become turnovers, such as the one where he was hit from behind and fumbled. Elliott spoke of taking two steps forward and one back Saturday when describing the offense. I saw another recipient.

AND ON THAT LAST NOTE …

First, it’s a crying shame Elliott Fry has to be depended on so much. Six field-goal attempts in a home game against Vanderbilt? And still only 19 points? But, that’s the way things are. The Gamecocks’ offense is not well.

USC hasn’t been great, and Fry’s been close to perfect. Close to. He’s nearing a completed list of what parts of the goal post he’s hit. 

THE UGLY

LOOKAHEAD

It’s great that Elliott got a win in his first try. Great that USC (at least for two weeks) has restored some hope in what started as a miserable season.

It’s not so great that Elliott, no matter what he does, seems to be in a no-win situation.

The Gamecocks can afford to attract a big-name candidate for the job. Elliott, certainly, was always going to be a candidate. The players love him, he wants to be here, he’s very good at what he does, etc.

It’s a paradox, though. If this team keeps losing under Elliott, well, he could only do so much. If it wins, the Gamecocks’ brass has a decision to make, and it has to judge between what’s best now and what’s best for the future.

With a lot of seniors leaving, USC was always going to struggle next year. Such is life when you lose playmakers off a bad football team. So it stands to reason that the next coach, whoever it was, was going to struggle as well.

Let’s just say that Elliott wins out, goes 4-2 or 5-1. That should definitely put him in the conversation about being the next coach (The Dabo Principle) and it would be a great move for the reasons mentioned above. If he doesn’t, hey, the guy’s not a miracle-worker. He couldn’t pull wins out of that collection of players.

The latter happens, USC hires a new coach, fans are patient for at least a year because it’s no talent, a new system, yada yada yada. The former happens … would they be willing to wait with the same criteria, without the new big-name coach? If Elliott got the job, would fans ride through the downtimes to see what he could do, or immediately say, "See? Should have gotten Lombardi!" or whoever else they’ve set their expectations on getting?

I think Elliott wouldn’t be content to go back to an assistant spot (and there is no guarantee a new coach would want him). His limited turn at head coach may lead to another spot (Georgia State has been floated) and he’s never had a shortage of schools that wanted him as an assistant. He’ll land somewhere.

He’d be great here, as he has been for six years. The catch is there seems to be only one way for that to happen.

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