Ron Morris

Morris: USC shows potential for rest of season

Columbia, SC 9/24/09 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com ---South Carolina senior linebacker No. 40 Eric Norwood and head coach Steve Spurrier celebrate their win over Ole Miss, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Thursday, September 24, 2009.
Columbia, SC 9/24/09 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com ---South Carolina senior linebacker No. 40 Eric Norwood and head coach Steve Spurrier celebrate their win over Ole Miss, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Thursday, September 24, 2009.

Forget that South Carolina has defeated North Carolina State, which appears to be a contender for the ACC championship, and Mississippi, which may never live up to its once-lofty ranking but remains a Top 25 club.

USC's 3-1 start is more about how the Gamecocks have won games. It has been ugly at times. But winning ugly works when you have a history of letting those kinds of games slip away.

"We're 3-1 and we haven't played our best yet," Steve Spurrier said Tuesday, intoning an optimistic vibe seldom heard during his five years here. "That's encouraging."

It is encouraging because USC has shown an ability make big plays when it counted. While the defense carried the Gamecocks in the 7-3 victory against N.C. State, it was a clutch 33-yard Stephen Garcia-to-Moe Brown pass play on third-and-4 from the USC 39 that sealed the win. It takes more than one hand to count the number of times that type of play would have helped USC to a victory over the past decade.

In the 16-10 victory against Mississippi, fullback Patrick DiMarco caught a pass in the flat and fought his way 2 yards for a touchdown. There exists a litany of those plays in recent memory where a USC running back failed to find the end zone, fumbled the ball or dropped the pass.

Only the top-level teams win all the close ones, and USC is not in that class. Not making the fourth-and-goal pass with 22 seconds left to beat Georgia shows that this team is still learning how to win.

Most of that development is taking place on offense. Yet there are signs everywhere that - with steady improvement - the offense could display the kind of high-powered attack expected from Spurrier-coached teams.

Garcia appears more comfortable with each passing game. Kenny Miles has displayed flashes of explosiveness out of the backfield, and Tori Gurley is on the verge of becoming a big-time receiver.

"We're not a bad team. We're just not an explosive team . . . yet," Spurrier said. "We still have hopes we can be some day. But we haven't gotten there yet. Maybe it'll happen soon."

On defense, the line is depleted enough by injuries to constitute a young group. Yet the USC defense has established itself as a strong unit. If it continues to improve from week to week, the Gamecocks could have a scary good defense, one that can give USC a chance to win every game regardless of the opponent.

Part of this team's maturation process will occur over the next two weekends. It is important that USC play a solid game against South Carolina State and show marked improvement against Kentucky.

In 2007, USC struggled against S.C. State, winning by five touchdowns despite itself. Then it looked like gangbusters three weeks later in taking apart a Kentucky team ranked No. 8 in the country.

The Kentucky win was a mirage due in large part to Kentucky being vastly overrated. USC never played to that level the remainder of the season and stayed home for the bowl season.

A season ago, USC stood 7-3 and ranked No. 24. Not only did it not improve over the final three games, USC regressed.

This season has a different feel to it because this USC team has not played to its potential. It has not put together solid play on offense, defense and in special teams in any game, and that prospect bodes well.

Perhaps that is why Spurrier was cautious in his evaluation of USC's victory against Mississippi. He said USC should curb its enthusiasm over beating the nation's fourth-ranked team. Spurrier realizes who USC has beaten to this point is largely irrelevant. More important is how USC has played and will continue to play.

"We're still not anywhere close to where we hope to be. Hopefully we can get there soon," Spurrier said. "A lot of these have gotten away (over the previous four seasons). The Georgia one got away this year."

But the N.C. State and Mississippi games did not get away. USC found a way to win, which so many Gamecocks' teams in the past did not. Besides, any USC fan will take two out of three in those kinds of games from here on out.

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