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October 31, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

NO. 17 SOUTH CAROLINA 38, TENNESSEE 24

THE GOOD

The Wonder Twins My own feeble offer to the search for a group nickname to describe Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. It's been proven over and over again, and once more on Saturday, if South Carolina gets the ball to one of those two, good things happen. Steve Spurrier wisely held Lattimore out of last week's game, not wanting to risk aggravating the sprained ankle the freshman had at Kentucky, and a fully healthy Lattimore began churning through Tennessee's defense. Yes, he was held up a few times -- that Nick Reveiz was on him like the mumps -- but in the first quarter and most importantly, the fourth, Lattimore was able to break some long runs and get the Gamecocks downfield. He had a career day, passing the 182 he ran for against Georgia with 184 yards, and remained on track to become USC's first 1,000-yard rusher since Derek Watson in 2000. As for Jeffery, even on a day where he was covered and his quarterback was harassed, he managed to break the game open, just like last week. Tennessee tied the game and Jeffery un-tied it, turning a simple 12-yard underneath route into a spin-out and a 70-yard sprint for a touchdown. Jeffery upped his total to 935 yards for the year, which with at least five games remaining (counting a bowl), should easily get him well over 1,000 (last man to do it -- Sidney Rice in 2006) and well over the best single-season total in history (1,143 by Rice, 2005).

* P.S. Also a wonderful job of being aware that Lattimore had in the first quarter, when Stephen Garcia lost a snap due to miscommunication -- T.J. Johnson was told to snap on the first sound and he did, but it was Garcia hollering for Tori Gurley to get in position, not for the ball. Lattimore picked the errant spiral out of the air and ran in for the touchdown, which was negated after a flag.

Gimme the ball! Spurrier griped about it last week, how the defense never seemed to be able to hold onto loose balls. The Gamecocks let four get away from them at Vanderbilt. The defense listened, especially Devin Taylor. The big man, already playing a magnificent season, had three takeaways all by himself, including a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown immediately after USC had scored a touchdown to open the second half -- which was set up by Taylor recovering a fumble. Taylor had another fumble recovery in the first half, and he should have been credited for another (he knocked the ball out of Matt Simms' hand when Simms was winding up to throw. Taylor hit him just as the ball got to its furthest point before going forward, and Simms never got his arm forward enough to be ruled an incomplete pass). DeVonte Holloman also pounced on a dropped kickoff, which was set up when Marty Markett was about to turn Eric Gordon into a grease spot. Gordon never called fair catch with Markett closing in, the ball went right through his hands and Holloman was there.

Speaking of ... Markett was awarded a game ball, the first special-teamer to get one this year, and was mentioned by Spurrier and Ellis Johnson as having a chance to play some defense against Arkansas. And Blake Baxley had a huge play in the fourth, just after USC had taken a 31-24 lead and Tennessee had to punt. The kick glanced off the foot of the unsuspecting Stephon Gilmore, who was clearing the area, and laid there uncovered for what seemed like a full minute. Baxley, who never stopped running, got there and dove on it at the 8-yard-line. UT picks that up and scores, we might all still be over at Williams-Brice.

The Situation (and I saw a few horrible replicas of the guy from "Jersey Shore" at Halloween, hence the title) The Gamecocks are bowl-eligible for the seventh straight year, by far the best stretch in school history, and their streak of non-losing seasons matches another school record (another string of seven, from 1928-34). They stayed on top of the SEC East and set up a showdown with Florida in two weeks for the division crown (unless USC beats Arkansas on Saturday while Vanderbilt tops the Gators). The best part? None of the players seemed all that enthused about being simply bowl-eligible. They're proud of it, sure, but it's a case of been-there, done-that. They all know there is a much bigger fish in the pond.

THE BAD

BANG! USC almost ran out of toes to shoot off its own feet, and that was just on the first drive of the game. Lattimore marched the Gamecocks downfield until it was first-and-goal at the Volunteers' 9-yard-line. First play, Lattimore 6 yards. Second play, Lattimore 3 yards, but it's wiped and knocked back 5 yards for an illegal shift (believe it was Gurley). Third play, Justice Cunningham false-starts. Fourth play, Garcia incomplete to Gurley, too high for him to grab. Fifth play, Lattimore never hears the audible call, saying he's supposed to block Reveiz on the corner route to Jeffery in the end zone, and Garcia throws it right to Reveiz, who is a step in front of Jeffery. Where's the Tylenol? The worst part was it knocked the offense completely out of kilter until midway through the second quarter.

Hold it right there The Gamecocks actually played the most clean game of their past three, but the flags were coming at really bad times. Case in point -- an offsides penalty on Gurley midway through the second quarter. Tennessee had already punted and Ace Sanders had returned to the 24 in a scoreless game. The gaffe wiped out the punt, gave Tennessee a fourth-and-1 near midfield, and the Vols went for and got it. That became a substitution infraction on USC, and a 33-yard strike from Simms to Denarius Moore. UT took the lead on a field goal six plays later.

Big 'uns Tennessee's entire offense is built around hitting one or two home-run balls per game, to keep it in the game. The Vols know they don't have the manpower or personnel to grind out a game in the trenches. USC knew it, and let them happen. Simms' 33-yard pass to Moore. Simms' 12-yarder to Luke Stocker for the tying touchdown just before halftime, when Cliff Matthews was about to sack him. The debacle that was the fake punt, where nobody laid a finger on the punter until he was 25 yards downfield and then it was Sanders late-hitting him out-of-bounds. A 62-yard pass to Moore that became another game-tying touchdown, just when Damario Jeffery had Tyler Bray pegged and didn't finish the sack. The worst indictment? Malik Jackson saying afterward, "We played really good today. We scored over 10 points." Good grief.

What were you thinking? Maybe it was just me that noticed this. Ahead 24-10 in the third, USC faced a fourth-and-1 at its own 29. As soon as Lattimore got up from the pile, a nose away from the first down, Garcia looked over at the sideline and began motioning to go for it. Instead, the punting unit came on. Jarriel King was visibly frustrated, swinging his arms and rolling his head around. I daresay Lattimore, Garcia, Patrick DiMarco, anybody could have gone for that and made the first down. Instead, the punt went off, it became Tennessee's fake punt, then a Tennessee touchdown. I get the idea to play it safe, but sometimes you have to go for the jugular.

* Piddily, I know While Jeffery's touchdown was stunning to watch, just seeing that 6-foot-4 joker somehow get the ball and elude every man he wanted to downfield, I have to take issue with him holding the ball. I know those Under Armour gloves are like wearing thumbtacks on your fingers with glue on the palms, but nothing good can come from carrying the ball one-handed as your arms are pumping going downfield. And if Jeffery were to try that hot-dog move, holding the ball out in front one-handed for the last 10 yards, next year, he would be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct at the spot of the foul, knocked back 15 yards and have the touchdown negated. It wouldn't be the first time something disastrous happened just as USC appeared headed for a sure touchdown.

THE UGLY

Falling down The pass defense and third-down defense were each atrocious. There's no other way to say it. I'll give it a break on the big 62-yard pass, because Damario Jeffery should have had that sack and the secondary, thinking he did have it, wasn't as close as it should have been to the receiver. But man, what happened on those other plays? It's been a problem all year but it seemed to be getting shored up. How do Simms and Bray, not anywhere close to the highest caliber of college quarterbacks, throw for a combined 312 yards? There was again too much cushion for the receivers, defensive backs letting receivers get behind them over and over, bad angles on pursuit and tackling. Normally I wouldn't mind so much, because USC won the game, but looking ahead to next week (which win or lose, probably won't matter in the SEC East discussion), the question looms -- if they couldn't stop Tennessee, how can it hope to stop Ryan Mallett, who threw for 409 yards on Saturday? "The deep balls are inexcusable," Spurrier said. "We need to make some changes." It's just mystifying -- there is so much talent in that secondary, yet nobody is playing like it.

Line up I kept hearing the incredulous expression in the pressbox -- "How come Alshon Jeffery only has one catch?" Simple. He was covered a lot, sure, but Garcia was hounded so much by Tennessee that he never had room to set his feet and find his best target. Every time I looked through my binoculars, I saw Hutch Eckerson getting blown apart by Gerald Williams. I also saw Reveiz pushing past Johnson, Rokevious Watkins and Garrett Chisolm without so much as a how-do-you-do. When the line finally blocked, Garcia took the snap, planted, threw -- boom. Jeffery 70-yard TD. The defensive line got its act together, but early on, it was getting pushed around by an O-line featuring two freshman starters. The Gamecocks' rushing D was by and large very fine, and the line got the majority of the six sacks, but each took several steps back from what they had been doing.

Cully I grow tired of having to write this, but I don't know what is going on with Chris Culliver. I know the kid can play, and I like talking to him because he's a very charismatic guy and can throw out some rather dazzling quotes. It drives me crazy to see him on the field, though, because he's simply not playing to his potential. Now, I'm not singling him out, because the secondary as a unit has been bad all season. But he's the one I see playing like he's lost focus. Any player that loses his confidence -- something that Culliver has always had an abundance of -- isn't going to be of much use to his team. And here's the really strange part -- we were told Culliver left the game because of a shoulder injury. Makes sense -- he's had shoulder surgeries during his career and perhaps he re-aggravated it. Spurrier said it was something where he had his shoulder pads off, then began promoting Markett for more time at cornerback, where Culliver starts. So I ask Johnson what the deal is with Culliver's shoulder, and he answers, "I don't know. I hadn't heard anything about that." The defensive head hasn't heard of an injury to a starter? We're told later on that Culliver had a "right bicep strain." Maybe he's hurt, or maybe it's a deeper issue, but either way, there is cause for concern with a senior defensive back who's spent his career on the field.

Same old USC plays to its competition. I wish there was a reason that I could define and tell you why, but there isn't. A Top-10 team is on the schedule, the Gamecocks will play it like they're a Top-10 team. A speedbump to greatness is on the schedule, the Gamecocks will play it like they're the speedbumps. It's maddening and frustrating that USC can hardly ever play great and use these tune-up games as tune-ups, but it's been this way for dozens of years and there doesn't seem to a change in sight. As long as the Gamecocks win, it's able to be dealt with.

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