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September 26, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Auburn

Sorry this is late, but I figured I'd hold off a while and let everybody vent, then begin to calm down and think this through rationally (a dangerous assumption). Plus, after no sleep, driving three other guys through a hurricane where the last 24 days of no rain was dumped onto the highway at once in the form of 24 days of full rain, a detour through Atlanta because of construction and watching the replay (which was short-circuited because the power went out halfway through), it has been one incredibly awful day.

NO. 17 AUBURN 35, NO. 12 SOUTH CAROLINA 27

THE GOOD

Move Over, Sterling/Sidney/Kenny I said it after Georgia, when fans were clamoring for Marcus Lattimore's Heisman Trophy campaign. "Better start another one for Alshon Jeffery," I wrote (just so you know who said it first). That man is absolutely brilliant. He can do everything -- run short, run long, get open in traffic, catch the jump balls, out-run defenders and even block downfield. He caught eight passes for 192 yards, bringing his totals to 27 for 498 for the season, and got his first two touchdowns. Jeffery would have had a third, but two pairs of hands knocked the ball loose from his two (he did get both of them on USC's last play). One of our photographers was on the field and told me afterward that one of the Auburn photogs slammed his towel down on the 69-yard catch-and-run in the middle of the field, hollering, "Can anybody cover that guy?" It's becoming apparent that not many can. The touchdowns were nice, but I thought his best catch was where he ran down, saw the pass was going to be short, and came back for it with a dive on the sideline. I already have the single-season records charted, after Jeffery's 192 was the fourth-highest single-game total in school history (Kenny McKinley had 77 catches in 2007, Sidney Rice had 1,143 yards in 2005. Troy Williamson is No. 1 with 210 yards in one game in 2004). As G.A. Mangus said last year, those Southern Cal boys don't come to tiny St. Matthews, South Carolina, to recruit just anybody.

8 + 1 = 2 USC needed a receiver to complement Jeffery, and it has one in Tori Gurley. He had four balls for 36 yards, including a touchdown, and really showed a gift for staying close to home and running short routes, then catching, bouncing off tacklers and getting extra yards. Gurley is that rare player that doesn't believe his own talents, always trying to become better, and is so anxious to please that he does anything he's asked without complaint right away, never thinking if it's fair to him or not. A bit unconventional to have a 6-foot-5 slot receiver, but it's working.

75 percent Through the first three quarters, USC's passing offense was as fluid as I've ever seen it under Steve Spurrier. Stephen Garcia shook off a rough first drive to find his open men and was picking up blitzes, although his awareness of defenders decreased as the game went on. He was managing the game, hitting Jeffery for the big play and doing exactly what USC needed -- answering Auburn's relentless offense. If there was something to complain about through the first three quarters, it was he was moving down the field too fast -- the defense was getting no time to rest, although that's hardly Garcia's fault. He was running the team.

Madd Dog I've watched him for three years and had already written the book on Brian Maddox. One of the most physically imposing players I've ever seen (his arms make me want to drop and start doing push-ups every time I see them), he's a straight-ahead runner who can bulldoze opponents. Perfect goal-line runner. On Saturday, I had to edit. Maddox showed off some cuts that left Auburn breathless, and his sideline route where he came within three toes of straight hurdling Mike McNeil was a play destined for SportsCenter. I don't know what that man ate for pre-game meal but he needs to have the exact same amounts of it in two weeks.

Sticky fingers The Gamecocks continue to get turnovers, knocking two balls loose and having Shaq Wilson recover them. USC has gotten four fumbles and three interceptions in four games, and that makes it so much easier for the offense when the D can switch momentum by itself. It has been a point of emphasis ever since last year's defense couldn't hold onto loose balls, and it has sunk in.

THE BAD

Fished in So me and two other media boys are talking with one of the defensive coaches during warm-ups, and he gives us a breakdown of Auburn. Not scared of Cameron Newton's throwing abilities, very trusting in USC's ability to stop the run and force him to throw. The main thing was the Gamecocks knew Auburn would throw in some trick plays early and if they could hold on through those, they could control the game. To be fair, the Tigers' first three games didn't show all of Newton's abilities, and the films of those were what USC scouted. It was an entirely different dimension on Saturday. Auburn drew USC in, knowing Newton was mystifying it with his running and his ability to hide the ball in his massive hands, and when the Gamecocks adjusted by moving more defenders up, Newton screen-passed right over them. Ellis Johnson hasn't been suckered much since he got to USC, but boy, his squad sure got rooked on Saturday.

Eye on the ball There was never a dropped one, but the snaps coming from T.J. Johnson, as Spurrier critiqued last week, were often darting all over the place. Garcia had his hands full trying to guess where the snap was coming, often having to stop it with one hand and clasp it with the other. It made life easy for Auburn's linebackers, who could get a read on what Garcia was about to do with the ball, since it was so out in the open. The Gamecocks can hardly go under center with their offense and their blocking woes, so they mostly have to go with the shotgun snap, and Johnson, while not terrible, is still learning how to be consistent. Snapping in general was a problem for the night -- a botched snap/hold on USC's third touchdown resulted in a missed PAT and the need to go for a two-point conversion on the potential tying touchdown (which was a moot point).

Cut-off man It had been working, seeming to solve USC's lack of an edge pass-rusher, but as Auburn did whatever it wanted to offensively, Devin Taylor's role was negated. He had four tackles, including the only sack of Newton all night, but leaving him back as a stand-up guy, ready to blitz or drop into the middle of the field, was ineffective past the first quarter. He, along with the rest of USC's defense, often did not know where the ball was heading and Newton and his boys knew it. They completely removed Taylor from the equation.

THE UGLY

Clueless Ellis Johnson has done a wonderful job revamping USC's defense. I wholeheartedly agreed with every contract extension and raise he has gotten, aiming to keep him here for a long time. We're all entitled to a bad day, and Saturday was his. I can't hold him responsible for his players missing tackles (I felt like I was watching a Tyrone Nix highlight film) but there was just no scheme that he put out there that could stop Auburn. The Tigers owned USC on Saturday. USC's defensive line, which is four guys that should all be in the NFL someday, was completely dominated by Auburn's offensive line. The secondary, which was already the SEC's worst in pass defense, seemed to be playing 7 yards off its men at all times. The runs broke and broke and USC was incapable of chasing the Tigers down, with some of the worst pursuit I've ever seen. Cliff Matthews couldn't answer my question afterward, when I asked, point-blank, what was the scheme. He shook his head, struggled for an answer and simply said, "We just have to work harder." Johnson admitted that often, he and his troops had no idea what was about to happen, due to Newton able to place the ball in his backs' hands at the last second or keep it himself. An absolutely miserable night and one that destroyed USC's reputation as a run-stuffing team that may be susceptible on the pass, but would keep the opponent out of the end zone.

Ripping pages As he did in the PapaJohns.com Bowl, Spurrier saw his running game stuffed early and abandoned it. This despite having Lattimore there, despite having a running quarterback, despite USC being a running team for the first three games. Yes, I know it was hard to run the ball early when Auburn loaded up and began smacking the Gamecocks around. I have to believe the coaches knew that was going to happen, since Lattimore's name has been pushed into the stratosphere. But you can't just abandon it right away. There were chances later and USC didn't take them. The Gamecocks ran 28 times for 79 yards, with 30 lost yards mostly on sacks, and once again showed that if it would run, it was going to be The Lattimore Special -- head down over left guard. Where was Kenny Miles? He can hit the edge, as USC should well know from last year, and he didn't get a touch. Then Ace Sanders turns a busted play into 11 yards on a short reception, and doesn't get another carry. Just a poor, poor plan.

Four in the fourth No team will ever win a championship if it turns the ball over four times in the fourth quarter. Connor Shaw's two interceptions, it seems to be by reading some of your comments on the boards, are kind of excused because he's a true freshman. That dog don't hunt. He admitted that he simply looked directly over Josh Bynes dropping into coverage on the first and the second, yeah, it was a tipped ball, but you just can't throw into double coverage in the end zone, especially to a guy that you know is going to be covered since he's already caught 192 yards worth. As for Garcia, I don't think I'm being unfair when I say that a fourth-year player, who made his high-school reputation as a dual-threat quarterback, should know how to secure a ball by now. It's not like some of those fumbles Dondrial Pinkins used to have, when he was popped so hard his helmet flew off, not to mention the ball left his hands. Garcia was shook up after the first one, where he received a solid shot, but there's no excuse being wrapped on the second, knowing he was about to go down and not covering the ball.

The Decision Had to save this one for last. Spurrier yanked Garcia after the second fumble and inserted Shaw, a true freshman. Right or wrong? Many of you seem to think it was the wrong call, because Garcia would give the Gamecocks the best chance to win and "deserved" it. The move was so curious that even Chris Smelley tweeted about it, taking a shot at the Head Ball Coach with the following line: "Typical move by u know who. Great decision ... " (Yeah, when Chris Smelley is talking junk to you, you know it was a bad night). What I think --

It was the right call. Garcia had just fumbled twice because he keeps doing the same things that Spurrier has told and told him not to do -- run with the ball unsecured and leave his head down. On Sunday's teleconference, Spurrier mentioned several times how concerned he was about Garcia's health, saying that if he continued to lead with his head down, he was risking open looks at his neck, and nobody wants to see a kid get hit and not move when the tackler gets up. That is a very legitimate point, but I find it awfully coincidental that this comes up now, when Spurrier has two weeks to decide if he's going to stick with Garcia or give Shaw the ball. See, by saying that, he gives himself an excuse for not playing Garcia (not that it will necessarily happen), and I do believe that Spurrier is concerned about the reckless way Garcia charges into tacklers. But he's also concerned about Garcia being the right guy to lead the offense, after another game where he began great but didn't finish. Yes, Shaw threw two picks, but he moved the ball downfield and when he ran, he hit the sideline and tucked the ball away. Spurrier has always said that if the first guy isn't playing well, got to give the next guy a shot, and he did that on Saturday.

I know some of you blame that on losing the game, but let's be honest, here -- it was USC's lack of defense that did most of the damage. Plus, you seem to be thinking with the "what if" theory, assuming that Garcia would have done something that Shaw did not. You don't know what would have happened. The cold, hard fact in this is USC had four cracks to erase/equal a one-point, then an eight-point, deficit, and did not do it. Two turnovers apiece by Garcia and Shaw.

I know deep down that Garcia will start against Alabama. But I also know that in the next two weeks, he is going to be pushed by his coach to be a better caretaker for this team, which can still do great things (something else many of you seem to be forgetting).

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