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August 31, 2012
NO. 9 SOUTH CAROLINA 17, VANDERBILT 13
GENERAL: It takes more than throwing the ball to be an effective quarterback -- a team has to know that its quarterback will lead it into Hell and emerge from the other side with just a few scorch marks. There's no mistaking the way the Gamecocks are firmly behind Connor Shaw. Speaking to Marcus Lattimore and Justice Cunningham afterward, they used phrases such as "warrior," "leader" and "guts." Then Shaw got up there, the right side of his face blushing an angry shade of red from what looked like too many face-plants in the field turf, his right arm numb but him full well knowing that the pain would return in force come the morning, and declared that he would "absolutely" be ready to face East Carolina next week. I got the feeling then that if Shaw had gone back to the trainer's room and they would have told him that he needed to take a few games off to rest the arm, he would have channeled Ronnie Lott and told them, "Just cut it off. I'll throw left-handed." Shaw, with no support outside Lattimore around him, almost single-handedly beat the Commodores. Out of 272 yards, Shaw accounted for 159. More importantly, when the Gamecocks needed a boost, Shaw provided one, hurt though it did. USC was going nowhere with Shaw out of the game, and Vanderbilt knew it. Ailing shoulder and all, Shaw walked back onto the field and began warming up. One series later, he was back in the game, and one quarter later, he was hitting Cunningham with the biggest play in the game. "Lead, follow or get out of the way?" Connor Shaw to a tee.
LEAN ON ME: Lattimore seemed a bit hesitant, lacking his usual explosiveness and unable to make the smooth cuts that had made him so valuable, but that was to be expected after coming off knee surgery and facing live action for the first time since October. Vanderbilt was waiting on him, too, and when the Commodores got him down, they gave him a reminder that maybe the great Marcus Lattimore wasn't so great after all. There was some paint and jersey fibers being traded, understand? But Lattimore, like everyone knew he would, got back up, stood back behind Shaw and asked for the ball again. That's his job. In the fourth quarter, when the Gamecocks were trying to burn clock and salt the game away, everybody in Nashville (including the folks knockin' 'em back at Tootsie's) knew what USC was going to do. Sure enough, handoff to Lattimore and let him make a decision. Four straight carries, for 11, 2, 23 and loss of 1. The drive stalled, but the message was clear - hit him, knock him down, pop him in the head, Lattimore will survive, and get the ball when the Gamecocks are a drive away from winning.
BEING THERE: The Gamecocks' defense was always in the right place at the right time last year, helped by playmakers such as Melvin Ingram, Antonio Allen and Stephon Gilmore. Refreshing to see that while those are gone, others have taken their place. Shaq Wilson turns the game around with an interception and long return. Kelcy Quarles drops Jordan Rodgers to squash a Vanderbilt drive, just after USC had scored the go-ahead touchdown. D.J. Swearinger with a "senior play" - something that looked an awful lot like pass interference, but with the right selling, a casual bump that ends Vandy's last drive. Those are the plays that helped turn another typical USC season into 11 wins last year. Don't know if that will happen this year, but that's a good start.
POETIC: All preseason camp, the Gamecocks drooled over their collection of tight ends. Buster Anderson, Kelvin Rainey and Jerell Adams were all fine specimens of football player, and ones that would give USC a new offensive dimension. Everyone forgot about Cunningham, a senior better known as a blocker, although he had 18 catches last year. In a game where the passing "attack" more resembled a game of badminton (emphasis on the "bad"), Cunningham came up with the biggest reception of the game. Shaw threw over the middle and Cunningham was earholed on the catch, his helmet flying off. I can't recall a hit like that since Jason Barnes was popped at Ole Miss way back when. But like Barnes then, Cunningham held onto the ball, and got a 15-yard personal foul to boot when the guy smacked his head and shoulders after the play. The way Cunningham stood up, strutted and then spun the ball, I thought he was going to get a flag as well, but the officials were apparently, like we all were, still amazed that he actually held onto the ball after being hit by a Patriot missile. I have an early entry into the Top 25 plays series for next season.
BOOM-BOOM-BOOM: Wilson's interception woke USC up. A long return, followed by a Shaw keeper, then a handoff to Lattimore that despite being 29 yards out, was easily attainable. Lattimore was so gone that when he cleared the second level, despite having to later step out of two tackles, Shaw was already raising his arms. That triggered the only time all night where USC looked cohesive. Vanderbilt's line was being knocked off the ball and USC was running all over the Commodores. Too bad it didn't last.
NOT OWEN OR LUKE: There you are, Shaq Wilson. Good to see you again. The Gamecocks' senior linebacker had missed all but one game in 2010 and had played solidly, but not spectacularly, last season, as he and his coaches waited for him to return to the form he showed in 2009, when he was USC's leading tackler. Wilson was beating himself up as badly as the others were - he knew very well that he wasn't performing up to his levels. On Thursday, he returned. He tied for the team lead with eight tackles, half of one for loss, and had the crucial interception early. The Gamecocks need production from their linebackers as their secondary gets its feet under it, and got it on Thursday.
WHERE YOU GOING?: The legend of Damiere Byrd has yet to be written, the sophomore from Jersey so far not living up to the hype that was bestowed on him (although for a while on Thursday, he was the only actual receiver who had a catch). It wasn't his speed - that was never in question - it's whether he could put it together and be an elite receiver. On Thursday, he didn't catch but one ball, but at least the opening paragraph of the book could be inscribed after he made a game-changing play. Remember, after USC scored the go-ahead touchdown? Andre Hal took off on a kickoff return because USC's coverage was lacking (I'll wait for you to say, "NOOOoooooo!") and looked gone. Byrd never gave up on the pursuit, took the brakes off his wheels and tracked Hal down at the USC 48, where he dove and knocked Hal's feet out-of-bounds. If Byrd hadn't gotten Hal, the only player left to get him would have been kicker Landon Ard, and that didn't look too promising, although since his hometown is known for producing outstanding players, one never knows. That possession became Quarles' sack and USC was able to grind clock. Byrd doesn't make that tackle or quits running, and the Gamecocks are likely having to score again in the final five minutes.
1-0: Uglier than the set after a day's worth of takes at "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but the Gamecocks won. If you're one of those who has to eat the cake that you have, you should either DVR the game and watch it after you already know the result, or move to Saskatchewan and watch curling on ESPN until December.
TWIN TOTS: What happened to Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, the defensive ends that were supposed to be the most dominant part of USC's defense? The numbers aren't bad, per se, with seven tackles (two for loss) and a sack between them, but there were large stretches of the game where neither was a factor. Vanderbilt did plan for them and either ran away or threw over them, and the Commodores did a great time double-teaming Clowney by sliding the offensive front toward his side. Presumably, that would free up Taylor, and Taylor did apply pressure, but rarely finished the play. The Gamecocks will face a lot more powerful offenses than Vanderbilt coming up - those two have to be on for USC to have a chance to neutralize them.
UGH: Rodgers made one of the worst decisions of the night in the second quarter, scrambling to his right and throwing this awful jump-ball pass that was primed to be picked off. Yet in the span of five seconds, Rodgers went from "OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING???" to "Hey, great play!" The wounded duck soared over a leaping USC defensive back who jumped to get it and fell right into the arms of Josh Grady, who ran for a 32-yard gain. Lorenzo Ward was rightfully steamed afterward, saying that USC doesn't teach its DBs to jump for a ball when the receiver is behind them. That play led to the tying field goal, but overall, I think it can be put under first-game jitters. Lord knows there were plenty more of those on Thursday.
IMPATIENCE IS NOT A VIRTUE: What'd I say earlier this week? "The only way USC can lose is if it gets hasty and tries to throw deep early. The Gamecocks don't have the receivers to do that, and they shouldn't need to, with such running depth and great tight ends. They'll be fine as long as Steve Spurrier doesn't remember how he made his reputation and throw long." Well, Shaw threw long early, to D.L. Moore, and it was intercepted. Shaw never saw the free safety running, and that was part of a stretch of two turnovers and a penalty among USC's first four plays. In retrospect, Lattimore had fumbled the first play of the game, so perhaps Spurrier felt as if he had to put in a deep ball, if nothing else to loosen up the defense. Didn't work. And it will continue to not work, if a point that we'll get to shortly doesn't improve.
PAGING MARK BERSON: Ard boomed his first kickoff through the end zone. The rest got shorter and shorter. Tyler Hull was averaging a healthy 43 or so yards per punt, until a couple of late short ones knocked his per-game average to 39. If there's any consolation, Adam Yates was perfect on his only field-goal try, a chip-shot 20-yarder. Me, it makes me wonder about the selection process, when scholarship kicker Nick St. Germain didn't make the trip and scholarship punter Patrick Fish has yet to play in his third season. USC was so spoiled with cannon-legged Ryan Succop and the can't-outwork-me Spencer Lanning that it's paying the piper now.
THE WILLIAMS WHIFF: Jordan Matthews caught the slant and immediately angled up field. Brison Williams, at safety, had him pegged. He was going to get a gain, but Williams was about to make sure it was a short one - this collision was going to knock birds off the wires. Instead, Williams just froze, as if he was thinking whether it would be best to hit him high or low, Matthews ran past him and was gone for a 78-yard touchdown. The momentum immediately switched, just as USC was on the cusp of turning the game into a very comfortable advantage. Mistakes happen, they do, especially to a guy who's only played eight games. But man, this was a big one. That one made Vanderbilt believe, and it didn't quit believing until Shaw ran for the game's final first down. It obviously cannot happen again, but it's not like USC has a whole lot of choices when it comes to the secondary.
I HATE BEING RIGHT ALL THE TIME: Who said it? Who said it in the preseason, that USC was going to have a big problem finding big-play wide receivers, especially when the primary candidates were Bruce Ellington (5-foot-9) and Ace Sanders (5-foot-8)? I'll give you a hint - his name starts with "D" and ends with "avidCloninger." USC receivers caught three passes for a combined 26 yards on Thursday. They couldn't separate from their defenders. They couldn't get open. They couldn't put their hands where they needed to be on the off chance it was thrown to them. This is a major, major problem and whether it was Vanderbilt's defense or not, USC should not have been blanketed that completely. Where was Shaq Roland, star of USC's preseason? Not even a chance to break the Gamecocks from the trend? Where was Moore, supposed to be having his at-last breakout year? Where was anybody? The Gamecocks will not win many more games if they're solely on The Shaw-Lattimore Run Diet, because it's really hard to run when four guys have a man around the ankles after the snap. Got to find a way to get out this rut, and soon, or the chance of improving on 2011 will disappear faster than actors who have played The Incredible Hulk.