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August 28, 2012
Can the pass wait?
Steve Spurrier has said, many times, that he will depend on what South Carolina does well in order to win. That means the No. 9 Gamecocks will run the football, and will run it plenty.
But will Spurrier have the patience to stick with it, even if it's not going well? Will a well-known coach who's been exactly the opposite of calm and patient during his career have the fortitude to not go for broke and call for what made him famous - the forward pass?
On Thursday, when the Gamecocks open the season at Vanderbilt, the game may hang in the balance of that decision.
Many national pundits are picking the upset, saying that the Commodores, fired up and ready to take a spot in the country's consciousness, will beat USC. Many others are saying that being hot-headed and confident is one thing, but that doesn't overcome talent, and USC has far more of that than Vanderbilt does.
The Gamecocks know what they want to do, which is shut down Jordan Rodgers with an aggressive pass-rush. They figure, correctly, that if Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney do their jobs and knock Rodgers out of rhythm, the rest of the learning defense (the secondary in particular), won't have to produce as much. Combine that with a steady dose of Marcus Lattimore, and Connor Shaw running out of trouble, and USC should be fine.
On offense, though, Spurrier will want to pass. Throwing the ball is as natural to him as riding a bicycle. There won't be anything to sweat, either, as long as USC's receivers are allowed to work themselves into the game.
Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders are able to catch but have to prove that they can get open, past taller, longer defensive backs. D.L. Moore, at 6-foot-5, has to show that he can jump and catch if the situation rises. Shaw has to realize that it won't be as easy as he was allowed to find out last year - throw it in the general direction of Alshon Jeffery and prepare to applaud - and that he'll have to have significantly more touch on the ball to thread a ball into his shorter receivers' hands.
If the Gamecocks remain patient and try to work the ball downfield, with the run and short passes to the tight ends and receivers running 5-yard patterns, they can control the tempo. But it almost seems pre-ordained that Spurrier will want Shaw to wind up and throw long - it's fun, it's exciting, and it's worked the past couple of times he's tried it.
Ellington caught a bomb for a touchdown against Clemson last year, when he raced past the secondary and hauled in a perfectly thrown ball. Jeffery caught a Hail Mary pass during the Capital One Bowl, elevating his frame above a crowd of six to catch it, then land and dive over the goal line. Those were part of an excellent end-of-season stretch for Shaw, where he progressed from a game manager who was often not allowed to pass to one that was nearly perfect throwing the ball during his final three games.
Spurrier is confident in Shaw, but is more confident in Lattimore. He's made no secrets about what he wants to do against Vanderbilt and against everybody else on the schedule.
"No, we are going to try to win the game, whatever it takes," Spurrier said on Monday. "Marcus is ready to carry it 25 or 30 times, but again, I think Kenny Miles is such a good back he should play a little bit here and there. That's the way I think we need to go through the season, also."
Yet one can almost see the Head Ball Coach itching on the sideline, aching to light up the sky with a deep ball. While the Gamecocks have tall receivers or jump-ball receivers in Moore, K.J. Brent and Shaq Roland, none are proven. To try to throw long, especially early, may be an invitation to keep Vanderbilt's confidence where it currently is.
Spurrier has had to curb his patience in building USC to its present state, learning the hard way that boasting about great talent (2007) with the Gamecocks wasn't the best approach. He's found his way back to the wisecracking, sometimes-smug Spurrier of old with his teams over the past two seasons, winning 20 games and entering this year as a Top-10 team.
He may have to hold back one more time, on the sideline on Thursday.