David Cloninger

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Tennessee

Jerell Adams caught a touchdown and fumbled on the Gamecocks’ final play on Saturday.
Jerell Adams caught a touchdown and fumbled on the Gamecocks’ final play on Saturday. tdominick@thestate.com

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




Nobody wants to think about it after a loss, and a particularly grueling loss at that. But the Gamecocks are improving.

They’re much cleaner in their execution and rhythm (and it stands to reason they’ll get even better while not having to fight a hostile crowd the next three weeks). Their defense actually made some quicker adjustments and gave USC a chance. And they still believe, their confidence that the corner is a millimeter away unwavering despite a loss Saturday that knocked a pause in their throats.

That first quarter, I had already written this as “The Ugly, the Uglier and the Ugliest.” There was no passion, no want-to, no understanding that this was a game that could be won. I was thinking USC would have done well to forfeit the game and use the travel money for the new coach’s moving expenses.

Then there they were with a chance to win. I realize emotion and energy don’t increase the talent. But isn’t it obvious this is a completely different team than what Steve Spurrier had?


I think it’s safe to say USC’s coaching search can remove one name. Memphis and coach Justin Fuente lost to Navy on Saturday.

The Gamecocks know the stigma of losing to Navy better than any team in the country.


The first quarter, when I was watching Brandon Wilds run into the pile on the same delay draw, I thought that Shawn Elliott’s words this week were looming hollow. He said you couldn’t run the same zone-read middle play every time and that’s what he was doing. He said he had a package for Lorenzo Nunez and Nunez was scarcer than good taste among those who wore checkerboard overalls to the game.

Elliott was just waiting, though. The first quarter was a rash of miscommunication and bad execution, but then came some gutsy calls. Jonathan Walton at fullback? Going for it on fourth-and-goal after Perry Orth had airmailed Jerell Adams once and D.J. Neal dropped another? It truly is an open book, which it really has to be.


Jon Hoke said the defense didn’t change, it just began executing. Whatever it was, it began to shut down Jalen Hurd and the Vols’ running game after UT did whatever it wanted to in the first quarter. There was more pre-snap movement, at least an attempt to blitz and seven tackles for loss, two recovered fumbles and a pick. It was good. Not great. Good.



The defense did play well – late. In the beginning, when the players were freshest, what was the game plan? It’s not like Tennessee was throwing out some brand-new look – it ran Hurd and let Joshua Dobbs throw short passes, like it’s done all season. Like everybody else in America, the Vols know the Gamecocks don’t cover receivers (on short or long routes) and can’t tackle. If USC can have the kind of second-half performance it had, what was the problem in the first?

The Gamecocks dropped four interceptions (Chris Lammons had three by himself). Those could have come in handy. USC did well on forcing long third downs but Dobbs was allowed to sit back there, update his Facebook, text his girlfriend and proceed through his checks four times each. I really do wonder, since it’s been proven that USC cannot keep up with any receiver on the field, why the Gamecocks don’t just jailbreak blitz on every snap. Get beat deep, hey, not like they’re not used to it … and the offense gets back on the field.


You can tell Elliott knows he can turn this around. You know that in his heart, there is no doubt he’s going to win out and whip Clemson and go to a bowl and win that by 50. There’s no telling him different, because this isn’t a job to him – it’s an involuntary movement, as natural to him as breathing.

I have no doubt that Elliott would be a fine permanent coach. There is nobody out there that will embrace this gig the way he would, which is the way this job has to be approached. The problem is that he’s not winning, which was the biggest thing he could do to get the job, and with the pressure on Ray Tanner to hit a grand slam on his first major hire, to pledge to Elliott would have him down 0-2 and guessing curve when Randy Johnson decides to create a sonic boom with the gas.

It’s expected, which is another “bad” – as in, a bad situation. Elliott was handed a no-win scenario and he’s not surprisingly not succeeding. Bill Walsh, God rest his three rings, wouldn’t have won, either. It would be so simple for Elliott to say, ‘Hey, I ain’t no miracle-worker,’ and check out like a few of the other assistant coaches, but there is no quit in that man’s body. He is pledging everything he has to this program and he’s going to throw one last punch, even on his last breath.

Really wish he would have had more, or could have more, time to turn it around.



Add Saturday to the book of Galling Losses at Neyland Stadium, and Galling Losses for USC Football. I mentioned a few of the ones I could think of on deadline in my wrapup from the game, but so many others came to me on the drive home (Andrew Pinnock, for example).

The point is, I thought USC was past this point. During the 33, it was easy to watch this team. You knew, just knew, something would happen and they’d win. Game was going bad, there’d be a D.J. Swearinger interception in Starkville or a Jadeveon Clowney strip-sack of Tyler Bray or Bruce Ellington hauling in that pass in Tampa, and the Gamecocks would win. The dark times of all those agonizing losses, of the fabled “Chicken Curse,” were thought to be over.

Either they were just in hibernation, or it’s the old adage.

When things are going bad, they’re really going bad.