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October 24, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

NO. 19 SOUTH CAROLINA 21, VANDERBILT 7

THE GOOD

Bench strength With Marcus Lattimore dressed but the coaches not wanting to play him (although that decision may have gotten close after a couple of possessions), the job of the running game fell to Kenny Miles, then Brian Maddox. Likewise, when Alshon Jeffery became locked down in the second and third quarters, the job of the receiving game fell to Tori Gurley. Each responded much more than admirably. Maddox wore down Vanderbilt's aggressive defensive front by pounding away with those two 2x4s he calls shoulders, then broke loose for a career night. The senior had 24 carries (previous high was 12), 146 yards (previous high was 82) and a long run of 38 yards (previous high was 17). He and Gurley basically were the Gamecocks' offense in the second half, Gurley perfectly willing to stick on the sideline or head across the middle for those short passes that worked so well. He caught 13 balls for 109 yards and a touchdown, and gave Stephen Garcia an outlet when Jeffery was covered. The plan was simple -- Jeffery will be open sometime, just wait until it happens. Gurley was the recipient of waiting for Jeffery to break, and although he was given some bad information -- he mistakenly thought he tied for the career-best in single-game receptions, but the record is actually 14 (held by Zola Davis and Kenny McKinley. Gurley is all by himself in second, though -- it surely didn't take away from the performance.

Simply the best Jeffery is having such a fine season that he caught nine balls for 158 yards and most were saying, "Yeah, he played OK," thinking of Gurley's day. The biggest weapon in USC's arsenal continues to get unholstered and blast past the opposition, even on a day when he spent the final two quarters mostly silent. The play of the game was on a busted assignment -- Jeffery was supposed to run a simple hitch and catch it on the sideline, but Garcia was blitzed (again) and had to scramble. He stepped into the pocket, then rolled right, and Jeffery figured he'd better start moving. "All the other receivers were running," he shrugged. He took off, seeing the one-on-one coverage, and Garcia dialed it right into his hands. Jeffery never stopped galloping, turning the busted play into a 72-yard touchdown that finally put the Gamecocks ahead by two scores, and it was the back-breaker. "I thought he'd get caught," Steve Spurrier said, "but he's sneaky-fast." Yeah, but he sure ain't sneaky-good -- he's just a magnificent football player.

Rebound Garcia again started roughly, hitting the dirt when his line couldn't pick up the blitz, and sailed a few passes, but quickly calmed down. The coaches correctly figured that if Vanderbilt was going to keep blitzing and the running game wasn't working, there was only one option -- stick to the short game. Garcia mixed his sideline throws and screens effectively, and I don't think he was the only one shocked when he saw he finished 31-of-39 (I, at least, was stunned to see he didn't miss any more than that). He threw for 355 yards, his second straight week of eclipsing the 300-yard plateau, and except for the underthrown ball to Ace Sanders, into double coverage, that was intercepted (and should have been overturned, since Casey Hayward had it bounce and then recovered it), Garcia played very, very well. The Gamecocks needed someone to control the offense, and he did that. Shoot, was anyone else starting to squint and think of a familiar invective when he chucked into triple coverage? Fortunately, that Gurley cat (from the fine town of Rock Hill) pulled it in.

*P.S. Even though the drive ended in a punt, Garcia showed a boatload of guts by standing in the face of the blitz and finding Sanders for a 17-yard completion on third-and-7. Those are the kinds of plays a team and a sideline need to see, letting them know there is a general in charge.

Prove it Ellis Johnson said all week that the defense was working to improve on the loose coverage that killed USC against Kentucky, and it did. The Gamecocks were playing much closer to the line and shadowed their receivers well, smacking down the designed running game and really only getting in trouble when Larry Smith scrambled and found holes. Warren Norman broke for 40 yards on the first offensive play, but Johnson shrugged it off, saying Norman had done the same thing against the SEC's other heavyweights. USC regrouped and shut down Vandy for the most part, holding the Commodores to 250 total yards. Now, I won't say the defense's problems are completely fixed, because let's be honest -- Smith missed a lot of open men in the final two quarters, and Vandy sports the second-worst offense in the SEC. But it was miles better than last week.

The Drive USC needed a touchdown, and only had 63 seconds to do it. Garcia only needed 51. He completed three of his first four passes on the last drive before halftime, handed off to Maddox once, then spied Gurley for two straight passes, the last a wide-open touchdown throw on the left edge. Montana never did it better, although he did it plenty of times, and that sort-of helped soothe the sting of the drive that wasn't last week. Also, kudos to Spurrier, because I don't know if it was the plan or not, but I was thinking in the pressbox, "You watch. He'll put in Lamar Scruggs and throw to him, just to prove a point." He didn't, sticking with what was working.

Had to have it The Gamecocks needed a win, after last week's meltdown, to break a seven-game SEC road losing streak and to keep themselves on top of the SEC East. They got it. No matter how ugly it may have looked, an ugly win always beats a pretty loss.

Satisfied? An early perusal of our message boards showed that most were simply happy the Gamecocks won, instead of complaining how the win "should" have looked. A sign of turning the corner?

THE BAD

Returns Well, it's not really bad, because it never really hurt USC, but it surely didn't help. A week after Spurrier said that some of the "holdup guys" on returns were fired, but returner Stephon Gilmore wasn't, Sanders took over for Gilmore and had three returns for minus-4 yards. I give him a lot of credit for catching one ball that was way over his head -- he hauled it in over his shoulder while running backwards, but you just can't give up 20 yards and then expect to make it back, plus more to give your team good field position. Sanders didn't fumble the ball, but he didn't advance it, either. Bryce Sherman was equally bleh on kickoff return, dropping one ball but recovering it. It just seems to be the point where USC has to realize, "We're never going to return a kick."

What the ... ? A week after, and a week during, USC's defense was blistered for somehow losing Randall Cobb for the wide-open game-winning touchdown, the Gamecocks again had a crucial slip. John Cole got behind the secondary for a 35-yard catch that set up Vandy's only score in the second quarter. I'm not sure who blew the coverage, but those kinds of mistakes surely don't win championships. USC didn't allow anything further, but that one had the Gamecocks in an early hole.

Flags A season-high nine, after last week was a then-season high eight. USC was penalized for false starts, ineligible men downfield, illegal formations, having shoes untied, placing the fork on the right side of the plate instead of the left, you name it. Just sloppy play, and inexcusable. It's the eighth game of the season next week.

The Fade Sigh ... The Fade has worked, because Jeffery is such a fine receiver. But it's always the same thing. Short yardage near the goal line, Garcia takes the snap and launches, always to the right corner. Does anybody not think opponents have watched that play on tape? This one, which was incomplete, forced a field goal, which was blocked. My question -- why was The Fade called when Maddox had rushed for 57 yards on that drive? Why?

Meet dirt Vanderbilt had eight sacks all year coming into the game, and somehow dropped Garcia four times in the first half. How does that happen? Easy. Vandy rushed three and blitzed one for the majority of the first half, and USC never picked it up. The Gamecocks let man after man run right through the line and with no running game early, Garcia had no choice but to tuck the ball and get down.

Kenny Another sigh ... Look, I was Miles' biggest supporter (just go read the stuff from last week and the week before). And I'm not criticizing his effort (read that again). But sometimes, it's just not going to work, and this is one of those times. Miles was given the start, and did not produce. Whether it was the blocking up front or the slight hesitation when picking a lane, Miles was often hit right after the handoff and dropped for a loss. Then Maddox came in and had a career night. The writing is pretty clear -- Lattimore is the starter, Maddox is the backup, and although Miles may get another chance this year, who knows if he'll have another performance like Saturday? I feel awful for that kid, who has reportedly had a wonderful attitude about the whole thing, but has watched Jarvis Giles leave and his carries dwindle to nothing. Looking ahead, the road seems to open for Miles. Maddox is gone after this year and the only other options are Eric Baker, redshirting while recovering from knee surgery, and I guess the two freshmen that are verbally pledged to the Gamecocks next year (Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson). There is room for Miles to play a role next year, and I'm hoping the young man takes that opportunity.

THE UGLY

Killed I don't know what happened on the blocked field goal (as in hold, snap or simply the line caved), but there is no excuse for having it swatted away, especially when USC was trying for that elusive score to make it a two-possession game. I know the field-goal unit hasn't had much practice this year because the Gamecocks have been so good at scoring touchdowns, but, man. Coming after the disastrous fade pattern, I was thinking, "So long, momentum."

Shotgun It has been a problem all season, but not to this level. T.J. Johnson snapped a ball to Garcia that was so wet Garcia needed a raincoat. Credit to Garcia for chasing and falling on it without losing it, but that snap took the Gamecocks right out of field-goal range. Johnson calmed down afterward, but those one bad snaps in a sea of good ones can often lose a ballgame.

Lost Because of the inability to pick up Vandy's blitz, USC looked as clueless as it did last week without Lattimore. Nobody could find a lane, and until Garcia figured out the short game was the way to go, it was a struggle to throw the ball (most notably, it's hard to throw when flat on your back). Shoot, even when Vandy's P.A. somehow played "Sandstorm," the sizable USC contingent was half-heartedly waving their spirit towels.

Fumble Garcia's fumble was correctly overturned, since his knee, shoulder, right side, back and points west were all on the ground before that ball popped loose. That set up a fourth-and-short at midfield, in the third quarter of a 7-7 game. Yet, after the review, the punting unit comes on. Why not go for it? Maddox was just getting in gear and I thought the Gamecocks needed to seize momentum. As it turned out, an illegal formation penalty (on a punt!) pushed the Gamecocks back 5 yards and forced the punt anyway, but still, that could have been a jugular pickup.

Hold on "I was pretty (rude word for 'angry') that I lost it," Travian Robertson said afterward, and he wasn't the only one who had a ball in his mitts and dropped it. Same problem as last year -- USC simply cannot hold onto turnovers. Robertson pounced on a fumble, saw it squirt out, hit a guy's foot and bounce over his head to Vanderbilt. DeVonte Holloman dropped an interception, as did Damario Jeffery. Akeem Auguste recovered a fumble in the fourth, yet it was overturned. I don't know what the solution is, because that JUGGS machine in practice has been on every day. It worked early in the season -- USC has eight turnovers, but none lately. It's OK when the Gamecocks don't turn it over, but when they do, as they did against Auburn and Kentucky, and can't get any, that turns the game.

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