December 7, 2007

The Top Five Storylines Of The 2007 Season

Every football season is filled with delights and disappointments, twists and turns. The 2007 season was no exception for South Carolina. The season started well with six victories in the first seven games. But, for a variety of reasons, the Gamecocks collapsed down the stretch and failed to make a bowl game. Here are the top storylines from the 2007 season.

INJURIES DEPLETE THE DEFENSE: USC enjoyed some success on defense following the season-ending injuries to Jasper Brinkley and Nathan Pepper, but the long-term absences of both players eventually wore down the defense.

With Brinkley, the Gamecocks lost their dominating presence in the middle. Junior Marvin Sapp and freshman Melvin Ingram performed adequately, but they don't have the size and speed Brinkley possesses.

Should he remain one more year with the Gamecocks, Brinkley could be drafted within the first two or three rounds of the 2009 NFL Draft. Brinkley had 107 tackles in 2006, and had 21 stops and two interceptions in just over three games this season when he tore knee ligaments at LSU.

Late in the year, the secondary took a hit when cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Carlos Thomas were knocked out of action. Munnerlyn suffered a small fracture in his foot against Arkansas which prevented him from running at full speed. He was on the field for just one play against Florida before sitting out the entire Clemson game.

On the bright side, the injuries to Brinkley and Pepper forced some young players to step up. Ladi Ajiboye, playing more than he initially thought, enjoyed a solid season at defensive tackle and was named Friday as a second-team Freshman All-America by The Sporting News.

In addition, linebacker Rodney Paulk increased his tackles from 39 to 64, while Emanuel Cook and Darian Stewart were extremely active in the secondary against both the pass and run. Neither player was afraid to hit people. Hopefully, that experience will pay off in 2008.

A TALE OF TWO SEASONS: After posting impressive September victories over Georgia and Mississippi State, USC peaked with a Thursday night nationally televised victory over Kentucky on Oct. 4. The Wildcats were ranked in the Top 10 and had a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback. But the Gamecock defense dominated, holding the high-powered Kentucky offense to 23 points and several key turnovers, including an interception in the end zone and two fumbles returned for touchdowns by Eric Norwood.

The following week, USC dominated North Carolina in the first half before falling flat in the second. USC still won, 21-15, but the seeds had been sown for the downturn.

The following week, nothing went right in a shocking 17-6 home loss to Vanderbilt. The slide continued with losses to Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and Clemson.

USC started its losing ways when it stopped being balanced on offense. In the first seven games of the season, the Gamecocks averaged 127.7 rushing yards and 221.1 passing yards per game, a difference of 93.4 yards per game.

However, over the final five games, USC averaged 94.0 yards on the ground and 310 yards through the air. That's a difference of 216 yards per game. In short, USC became one-dimensional on offense.

Defensively, USC struggled to stop the run throughout the season, particularly late in the season. But Louisiana-Lafayette ran for 252 yards in the season opener, so the signs were evident early.

The biggest difficulty USC had on defense over the final five games was applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Gamecocks averaged one sack and two quarterback hurries per game during the losing streak.

In the first seven games, USC averaged 2.3 sacks and 2.3 quarterback hurries per contest.

MCKINLEY ESTABLISHES NEW RECORD: Kenny McKinley was elevated to the No.1 wide receiver spot when Sidney Rice departed for the NFL with two seasons of eligibility remaining. Some wondered how he would handle the additional pressure and workload.

Just fine, thank you. McKinley spent the first half of the season as USC's lone weapon at wide receiver as USC searched for a reliable second receiver. Freshman Dion Lecorn finally emerged from the pack, with all 27 of his receptions coming in the final seven weeks of the season.

McKinley had a spectacular season with 77 receptions, establishing a new USC single season mark, shattering the previous record (74 catches) held by Sterling Sharpe for 21 years.

He insisted in the aftermath of the Clemson loss that he would return to USC next season. Right now, it appears there's a slight chance he'll declare for the NFL Draft if an agent is cunning enough to convince him that he'll be drafted in the first round.

If he returns, McKinley needs just 17 receptions to pass Sharpe (169 catches) and ascend to the top of USC's all-time receptions list. He also needs 358 receiving yards to move into first place all-time in that category.

INSTABILITY ALONG THE OFFENSIVE LINE: When fall camp opened in the first week of August, head coach Steve Spurrier and offensive line coach John Hunt vowed to quickly find the five best offensive linemen. Unfortunately, it didn't happen.

Three different players started at left guard (Garrett Anderson, Gurminder Thind and Seaver Brown) and four different players at right guard (Lemuel Jeanpierre, Anderson, James Thompson, Heath Batchelor). The revolving door was spinning faster than the one at Belk's during Christmas shopping season.

When the dust finally settled late in the season, the coaching staff settled on the duo of junior Gurminder Thind and redshirt freshman Heath Batchelor at the guard spots. Redshirt freshman Seaver Brown started six consecutive games at left guard before he was replaced by Thind.

Batchelor gained the confidence of the coaching staff with a trio of solid performances to close out the season. With tackles Justin Sorensen and Jamon Meredith back next season, Batchelor will likely start out at guard, but he could challenge for one of the starting tackle spots by the time next season is over.

The continuing instability along the offensive line was a season-long consternation for the USC coaching staff. Unless five players step up starting in the spring, it may stay that way into the fall of 2008.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MIKE DAVIS?: The problems with the run defense and the offensive line aside, the greatest mystery of the 2007 season was the disappearance of running back Mike Davis from the offense during the second half of the season.

Entering the North Carolina game, Davis and backfield partner Cory Boyd had nearly equal numbers in terms of attempts (79-82) and yards (383-387). But, over the final six games, Boyd dominated the ball carrying duties, rushing 98 yards for 516 yards.

Over the same stretch, Davis carried only 35 times for 137 yards. The most yards he had in a single game during the second half of the year was 38 against Arkansas.

In the final two games, Davis had three rushes for 21 yards against Florida and a season-low one carry for four yards in the Clemson game.

USC's coaches offered little to explain the disappearance of Davis. Essentially, they blamed the play-calling, saying Davis was on the field for more pass plays than run plays, and there weren't many opportunities to get him the ball. Is that all there is to it?

With Boyd gone, we'll find out in the spring whether Davis has truly lost the confidence of the coaches, or whether the final six games were merely an aberration.

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