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November 28, 2010

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

NO. 18 SOUTH CAROLINA 29, CLEMSON 7

THE GOOD

As a heart attack No question that South Carolina practiced what it had preached for the past week. The Gamecocks said this game was more important than Auburn because it was the next game on the schedule, and although it didn't mean much outside of bragging rights, they still wanted it. They weren't whispering false promises. Steve Spurrier had his first teams playing for the majority of the game, and there was no letdown from anybody. The unchecked aggression of the defense and the offense's willingness to keep grinding the ball, even with little results, was impressive to see, especially on a cold night and a hard turf where injuries may have been more likely to happen. When Tori Gurley, one of the nicest kids on the planet, shoves DeAndre McDaniel, known for delivering some hard hits during a mix-up, one gets the idea that yeah, this is serious. Or it's just The Rivalry.

WOW-shon! (Too corny?) Again, the Calhoun Catcher (Really too corny?) busts out and shows another stadium and TV audience that he just might be the best wide receiver in the country. I swear that pass was headed out-of-bounds until Jeffery ran right under it and hauled it in for 39 yards, and the 37-yarder where Stephen Garcia rolled out and threw on the run was a perfect throw-and-catch. Another five catches for 141 yards, upping his season totals to a preposterous 1,351 yards. He also dove for a 15-yard bullet that Garcia threw to him on third-and-11. As I've often said about Jackie Bradley Jr., the quality of Jeffery that stands out the most is he makes it look so effortless. And people still say he's a better basketball player. If that's true, I'd love to see him play pickup with Michael Jordan.

Achilles How about Garcia? Deprived of his best offensive weapon (Marcus Lattimore), Garcia was forced to run the offense as fluidly as possible anyway. He did it by rolling out more, throwing the ball away under pressure (zero sacks), finding Jeffery and working that quick-strike touchdown corner throw to Patrick DiMarco for the second straight week. His numbers weren't terrific (14-of-30 for 227 yards), but here's one that was -- zero. That's the number of turnovers Garcia has had since the Arkansas disaster. He's taking care of the ball and is content with being a star when he has to, and steady when he doesn't have to be a star. Here's some more numbers -- 2-0. His record against Clemson as a starter. Not many USC quarterbacks have had two wins over the Tigers, much less two in their first two tries. Tommy Suggs will be looking over his shoulder next year as Garcia tries to hit a perfect 3-0. And speaking of those zero sacks, perhaps it's a valuable lesson to sack-master Da'Quan Bowers, whose pursuit of Clemson's single-season sack record will have to wait until the bowl game. Beforehand, he tweeted that he had some chicken for lunch and was saving room for his date with Garcia. I believe crow was the dish served for post-game meal.

Stonewalled That Arkansas game also woke up the defense. After surrendering 443 yards to the Razorbacks, the Gamecocks have given up 741 in three games since -- an average of 247 per game, but most of those during garbage time when the defense was simply trying to run clock with a comfortable lead. The unit is recovering turnovers, and taking advantage -- Antonio Allen's pick-six was the fourth defensive touchdown in the past four games. Against Clemson, check this out -- the Tigers ran 27 times for 61 yards, 39 on one fourth-quarter run from Roderick McDowell when the game was already settled. Clemson was held to 140 yards of total offense before the final three possessions, when Tajh Boyd found his rhythm and hit some ultimately meaningless throws. After Clemson's only score, USC held the Tigers to 39 total yards while they built a 19-7 lead. Ellis Johnson has answered the bell, folks -- while yes, the last three games have been far better matchups for his troops than Arkansas was, nothing breeds confidence (which the Gamecocks' D really needed) like winning.

Take what they give Again, USC keeps taking immediate advantage of its chances. The Tigers high-snap a punt, Brian Maddox charges through and recovers the loose ball. One play later, Garcia finds DiMarco for the six. Allen spies Kyle Parker scrambling and trying to get rid of the ball; he intercepts the lob and is already at full speed when he passes the offensive line. After Clemson takes a 7-0 lead, USC faces third-and-3 and Garcia throws incomplete, but an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Clemson (Andre Branch, I think) gives the Gamecocks 15 free yards and a first down. The drive ends in a field goal. Taking those opportunities and turning them into advantages is what a championship team does.

Spence I also wrote a sidebar on this, but it's moments like these that really make me smile. Spencer Lanning grew up a Clemson fan and always dreamed of playing in Death Valley, but since his high-school football career was kind of late-blooming, he wasn't really on the radar. He came to USC as a preferred walk-on, waited two years for his chance, then became a starter in his third year and a double-duty starter for his final two. He didn't play a perfect game on Saturday, missing a field goal and a PAT, but he kicked three field goals and punted four times inside the 20, dropping one on the one-inch line. Spurrier said you can't win a championship without a kicker and the Gamecocks certainly have one to take to next week's SEC Championship Game.

Hit men I always like to keep a chart of the biggest hits of the season and then rank them after the year is over. On Saturday, I got two that will definitely challenge for top spots. Quin Smith blasted Boyd with a brutal blindside hit that caused a fumble, lowering his shoulder and knocking the quarterback (who was listed at 230 pounds) off his feet. I asked him on the field if that was the biggest hit he'd ever delivered and he modestly said, "Just about," as a relative patted him on the back. Then there was the sack of Boyd by Cliff Matthews, where he came around unimpeded and instead of just wrapping Boyd from the back, leaped and enveloped Boyd's head with his arms. Boyd again fumbled as 268 pounds of angry Cheraw defensive end fell on him. The Smith hit might even challenge my favorite all-time hit seen while covering the Gamecocks -- Chris Culliver rushing Jonathan Crompton in 2008 and not even attempting to wrap him, just folding both arms and leveling the poor guy (Cully).

Million-Dollar Quintet Lanning, C.D. Turner, Hutch Eckerson, Terrence Campbell and Rodney Paulk joined only four other players in the last 40 years to have three wins over Clemson in their careers. The only other group to do it was Reggie Richardson ("There's the pass from Bennett"), Joe Troupe, Maynard Caldwell and Benji Young in 1992-96. And Paulk and Campbell, with sixth years of eligibility already approved from the NCAA, could each get another.

Records I keep finding new ones. The Gamecocks won three games in November for the first time since 1984. The Gamecocks swept the murderous "Orange Crush" stretch (Tennessee, Florida and Clemson) for the first time ever. Spurrier got his third win over Clemson (more than the last six coaches ever got) and improved to 44 wins at USC, which is in third place on the career chart and only one win behind Jim Carlen. The Gamecocks won at least nine games in a season for only the third time. And they beat Clemson in back-to-back years for the first time in 40 years.

It's been quite a season. And there are still two games to go.

THE BAD

First score I think it was a simple mistake, where D.J. Swearinger never came over the top to cover DeAndre Hopkins on the fly. Whatever it was, Hopkins was wide-open for an easy touchdown toss from Parker, just 1:50 into the game. All's well that ends well -- USC didn't allow squat after that until the game no longer mattered, and it fell into that curious trend. When the opponent gets a quick touchdown (think Clemson last year and Florida this year), the Gamecocks seem to play better.

Special teams Lanning did well, but he also had a PAT tipped by Brandon Thompson and a shanked field goal from 49 yards that had the distance but sailed left. The Gamecocks allowed their requisite one long return of the game, a 39-yarder right after Jeffery scored the first touchdown, and were then slapped with an extra 15 yards on a personal foul. Again, all's well that ends well -- that drive became a Clemson punt, but it's just frustrating that USC's special teams can't play a consistent game. There's always a few hiccups, and the return game, although Ace Sanders was pretty good against Clemson, remains a non-threat.

Confusion In the second quarter, USC called timeout twice in 2:06 of game clock, both on the same offensive drive. It ended up being a field goal, but what was going on? It's the 12th game of the year -- that kind of muddleheaded-ness should be eliminated by now. There was also a play in the third quarter where Clemson jumped into USC's backfield, but T.J. Johnson never snapped the ball. The Tiger actually got back onto his side of the ball and in position, which caused Hutch Eckerson to pop up and point at the guy, and Eckerson got flagged for false start.

THE (POTENTIALLY) UGLY

The Situation (Not that jerk from Jersey) We all remember what a big win over Clemson turned into last year. Fan support is gushing right now, just as it was then, and it will be a very exciting week as the Gamecocks prepare for the SEC Championship Game. Now, no matter what happens in Atlanta, there will be another game to play -- the season won't be defined until January. I have no idea what will happen in the next two games, but I simply ask everyone, especially the ones who post on our boards, to remember how good they feel now should the next two games not go to your liking. Not to say it will or won't, but this season has already been an unqualified success. Please remember that.

As for anything else, much like the Florida game, there was nothing ugly about Saturday. A friend of mine actually called me to ask what 365 times two equaled -- he, as a USC fan, has never gotten to brag to Clemson fans for that many days in a row before.

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