David Cloninger

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Texas A&M

Perry Orth tries to catch up with Texas A&M defensive back Donovan Wilson after an interception in the fourth quarter.
Perry Orth tries to catch up with Texas A&M defensive back Donovan Wilson after an interception in the fourth quarter. gmelendez@thestate.com

David Cloninger looks at the highs, lows and in-betweens of South Carolina’s loss to Texas A&M

TEXAS A&M 35, SOUTH CAROLINA 28

THE GOOD

UNDER THE BUZZCUT

(As opposed to under the visor)

Shawn Elliott delivered on his promise. He said all week we’d see something different from the Gamecocks’ offense, and he delivered. He knows what the rest of us do – USC cannot stop anybody on defense, so the offense has to score as many points as possible on as many trips as possible. He and G.A. Mangus (who still wears a visor) ran plays around the end. There were multiple handoffs. Darts to every spot on the field instead of looking for Pharoh Cooper on every try. There were tricks and cuts and a desire to shake it up.

Really wish I could have seen what they had cooked up for that two-point play to win.

PERRY FOOTBALL

Perry Orth played well. He made some big throws, hit receivers in stride, made up for overthrowing D.J. Neal in the end zone by running it in on the next play. He made Elliott a prophet of "he won’t take it to the house, but he can move the chains" with his 66-yard scamper (apparently Publix has a comprehensive health plan with full use of a gym). He’s growing into the role, and his teammates would lay down in traffic for him. He’s being deservedly saluted as a field general.

Although the battlefield commission can’t be awarded just yet.

GIMME MY PLAQUE

There have been some great plays through the carnage this year. Cooper and Skai Moore have certainly made their cases for Team MVP.

Sean Kelly deserves some consideration. He, more than anyone else, has done his job to the peak of his ability every single time. Even the one "bad" punt he hit Saturday was on purpose – he wanted to hit a bouncer to stay on the field and run the clock, which was better than kicking it high and giving the Aggies a chance to return.

I’M OPEN!

Don’t look now, but USC’s receivers are finally starting to run free. Shamier Jeffery had two big catches. Hayden Hurst had a catch-and-run, and Big Red lowered his helmet to take on his DB at the end as if to say, "I’ve touched 95 on the radar gun, chump." Tight end Kyle Markway caught a looper from Orth on the run and Neal showed his Dr. J impression by going up for one.

Orth showed he can run but he’s more comfortable being a pocket passer (although his line is better at run-blocking). To have more than Cooper available (he caught four of the quietest passes he’s ever nabbed) can at least give the Gamecocks the confidence they can equal whatever the defense gives up (and that’s … much).

THE WILDS THING

That’s the Brandon Wilds I thought I’d see all season. Lowering his pads, blasting through holes, making cuts and people miss on one of the best runs I’ve ever seen at any level. I don’t know who that petulant child I saw earlier in the year was compared to the man I saw Saturday. Even the play where he couldn’t get the play-call, then still missed it when Orth was left to hand off to nobody who was there, was more comic relief than a criticism.

The Gamecocks need more of Saturday’s Wilds.

I’M STILL STANDING

No matter the odds, the Gamecocks still believe. They are not only confident but dead-on sure they’re not only going to become bowl-eligible, but win out and leave those other in-state guys dragging their striped tails out of Williams-Brice Stadium with their eyes forever cast downward.

Belief can be a powerful motivator. The Gamecocks don’t have a lot else to depend on.  

THE BAD

ROLL THE DICE

Elliott and Mangus called a nearly flawless game. "Nearly" because there were a couple of opportunities they didn’t take advantage of.

Second quarter, ahead 21-14, USC was in great position. Get a stop, get the ball first in the second half, could go up two scores. Well, as we all know from our reading, USC’s defense couldn’t stop a runaway plastic bag in the breeze. But the Gamecocks were, at worst, tied and had a minute of clock with two timeouts.

They played to run clock. With A&M holding three timeouts. Knowing their defense was their defense. Yet that didn’t *really* hurt them.

Down 35-28 in the fourth – and knowing USC’s defense was its defense – the Gamecocks were facing fourth-and-5 at the A&M 48-yard-line. They elected to punt. That hurt them.

USC’s offense has to take every chance it gets. There is no reason to think the defense is going to find magic beans and learn how to play defense over the last four games (or accept a different idea on how to do it). The only way to win is to act like every down is the last chance to win.

Who knows if those would have worked Saturday? They could not have.

And they could have.

BUCK PRIVATE

Orth played a fine game. But he’s the quarterback, and the win or loss is going to be (fairly or unfairly) lumped on his shoulders. The Gamecocks’ defense didn’t give him much of a chance, but they gave him a slight chance, and Orth didn’t come through.

The pick-six was a play A&M was waiting on, covering Cooper as he ran a short route to the sideline. Orth never saw Donovan Wilson camped on it, and Orth was still kicking himself for letting it go as he watched Wilson’s jersey number get smaller and smaller on the way down the field. It caused him to be more careful later on – and that also cost him.

USC had three chances to tie the game, including in the final 90 seconds. Knowing he’d already taken a sack earlier that knocked the Gamecocks out of field-goal range, and knowing that A&M would probably bring a lot of pressure, Orth lined up.

First down, sacked. Second down, got to have time to let a long pass develop, sacked. Third down, he got the ball out of his hand but it was incomplete.

Orth did a lot of good things but that final possession magnified his mistakes.

CHISELED ABS

The Gamecocks need to win three of their final four games to make a bowl game. They’ve been bowl-eligible every year since 2004.

As good as it may have felt to think the hard times were gone forever just 21 games ago, they were just in hiding.  

THE UGLY

GIVIN’ UP

Previous musings in this space (and in the "Bad") have centered on just how atrocious USC’s defense is. I truly wish I could stop mentioning it. Really, I do.

I can’t. It’s the main reason USC is losing, and will continue to lose. Lack of talent’s one thing – lack of awareness is a whole another.

How many times does the defensive staff have to see a wide-open slant hit before it moves defensive backs closer to the line? How many times can a quarterback sit back there unmolested, picking and choosing his targets and running lanes without fear of pressure? I’m not saying a new alignment/scheme will work, because it’s still the same players.

But don’t they have to try? This system is broken (if it was ever fully functional). It ain’t going to be fixed. Elliott and Mangus went to "any port in a storm" to fix the offense and it worked on Saturday. Jon Hoke needs to do the same.

Let’s review:

Kyler Murray was a freshman QB making his first start. He had a reputation for running. The defensive line put five in the box and couldn’t get to him. They didn’t shift, they didn’t show blitz, they didn’t do anything but put their hands in the dirt and wait to get blocked. They surely didn’t get any kind of lane toward Murray to make him feel the heat, and when he took off to run, they tried to tackle high and tried to tackle low. They succeeded in tackling not.

There was no contain. There was no reading Murray and no taking away his reads. An offense that had struggled with protection and running the ball had no problems whatsoever against USC.

I looked down one time and saw two defensive backs lined up on three A&M wide receivers. The uncovered one was Ricky Seals-Jones. I watched this alignment for at least seven seconds. I would assume the coaches saw it for the same amount of time, and they have headsets. No timeout. Snap. Slant to Seals-Jones. Long gain. Perhaps there was a radio outage.

Texas A&M won the game on a pick-six off a slant. So it can work …

Moore confirmed that he and some of the other veterans went to Hoke and requested a simplification of the scheme. Two base packages, play press when audibled. It at least kept A&M off the scoreboard. That was an adjustment.

It was an adjustment from a scholarship athlete (who is basically playing for free) to his coach, who makes six figures.

The Gamecocks are about to play another pass-happy team with a run-option quarterback and a strong rushing team. One of the best offenses in the country waits at the end of the schedule. USC may be able to pull off a few surprises since its offense appears repaired. It can’t do it alone – there must be a few shutout possessions.

If that requires another player donning the headset, well, don’t they have to do that?

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