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October 16, 2011
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Mississippi State
NO. 15 SOUTH CAROLINA 14, MISSISSIPPI STATE 12
MINE: Alshon Jeffery isn't having the season he wants to have, but you have to admit - when the game is on the line, South Carolina knows who to throw the ball to. There are numerous high-percentage plays that will work on third-and-goal from the 4-yard-line, but the Gamecocks drew a line and said, "Know what? We gotta have this touchdown, and we're gonna throw it to our best receiver." Jeffery ran a simple curl and waited, as Connor Shaw took the snap, a few steps and arched his pass to the corner. When in doubt, throw it high, and tell Jeffery it's a rebound. The former basketball star out-jumped two defenders to get his magnets on the ball, hauling it in for the game-winning score as his helmet was rather impolitely removed (with no flag, a topic we'll get into later). He won't have the year he had last year, and sometimes Jeffery has been guilty of pouting on plays where he's been overthrown, then lets it carry over into the next few plays. But big-time players make big-time plays in big-time situations, and Jeffery made his biggest when he needed to on Saturday. So what if five catches for 24 yards isn't doing much for his NFL audition video? So what if he had to put the pursuit of USC's all-time receiving yardage record (51 yards away) on hold for two weeks? He won the game.
NO FEAR: Shaw, a week after lighting up Kentucky (which, yes, is that bad), didn't have a lot to depend on, with his running game swallowed and his offensive line being dominated. As Ray Tanner says, though, "Gotta win anyway," and Shaw did. He threw two interceptions, both on tipped passes, but was otherwise 20-for-28. Only 155 yards, but it was good enough to get the job done. Shaw only reverted to his previous self (i.e., running because his primary receiver was covered and not checking down) once, but otherwise controlled the game and didn't throw it away. Then, when he had to make a play to win, he did - even if it wasn't the play that was most designed to work. He stood in the pocket, waited, put just the right amount of touch on it and lofted the ball where it stood an excellent chance of getting intercepted - unless the receiver on the play was Jeffery. Shaw threw the ball with poise, and was then rewarded. Also took a lot of courage to throw that pass after seeing Mississippi State linemen in his front two bars all night, bringing to mind the gutsiness of another former quarterback.
DRIBBLE DRIVE: Bruce Ellington continues to show why he's more than just a specialty player. He became the first player since (guessing Syvelle Newton, but I have no real idea) to rush, catch and complete a pass in one game. Ellington ran the "Wildcat" well, caught some tough passes and did well throwing the ball, not trying to be Superman but sticking to the safe screen routes to reliable receivers. He's becoming more and more of an option, and now that Marcus Lattimore is out, that will swing his output upward. Not sure how good Ellington could be as a straight-up tailback, but he's definitely a guy to go to in order to shake things up - or just be a simple slot receiver. Whoever that was that once said, "Our best recruit is on the basketball team," they were right.
ENDS-AROUND: In case there was any worry about Melvin Ingram being slowed, it was quickly alleviated. The Number 6 (and ol' number 7, and you KNOW where he's from) was in MSU's backfield so often, he should have filed a zoning permit. Ingram was all over Tyler Russell, and was undeterred from a chop block that had him extremely angry (as in, chucking his helmet 5 yards away from an official, but officials were flag-retentive all day). He played hard, as he always did, executing a spin move that would have made Michael Jackson (R.I.P.) swoon to force an incomplete late in the game. While the Gamecocks continue to lose player after player to injury, Ingram seems possessed to have his best season and prove that he can be a player at the next level.
GO D.J., GO D.J.: It's not just that the Gamecocks have 14 interceptions through seven games, when they just had six picks for an entire season a couple of years ago. It's that they keep making picks in huge situations. D.J. Swearinger made an absolutely amazing interception to clinch the game, diving on an awkward pass and coming up with it, turning a somersault, then flipping the ball in the air. Amazing play by a team that needed an amazing play, but it's becoming the norm for these Gamecocks. They keep doing what needs to be done.
* YOU GOT A QUESTION, I GOT AN ANSWER: Throughout the season, and again on Saturday, if the opponent scores, USC immediately answers. While it may seem extremely frustrating to not see the Gamecocks play to the level of their talent, they keep answering the bell when they need to. USC scored on the second drive after MSU had its first touchdown, and answered on the first after MSU went ahead after a fourth-quarter field goal. Immediately responding is not a bad thing.
STEEEEE-RIKE!!!!!!!: Steve Spurrier is perfect in getting USC bowl-eligible. Seven years, seven times. And I know that may sound rather piddly in this age of being .500 and going to a bowl, but the fact remains - USC went to 11 bowls in all those other years.
THINK ABOUT IT: When was the last time USC actually completed a fourth-quarter comeback? Anybody know? I wracked my brain all last night and I couldn't come up with one more recent than Tennessee 2005 (The Josh Brown game). I can think of plenty of times where the Gamecocks were in position to hit that last score and win, but there was always a dropped pass or a sack or an interception or officials not signaling for an immediate timeout or some other thing that had everybody wearing garnet and black looking toward the heavens and shouting, "Just had to do it again, didn't ya?"
USC doesn't win these games, historically, anyway. Now they are. The Gamecocks have trailed in every game this season and have come back six of seven times. Even, as we all saw on Saturday, in the fourth quarter.
AGAIN?: Obviously, it's all right as long as the Gamecocks keep winning, but wouldn't it be nice if the scoreboard lit up first on USC's side? Seven games, seven deficits. It just gets a little unsettling. It is nice that whenever the opponent has scored, USC has almost immediately answered, but let the opponent do it for once.
WRONGWAY: Yes, he's a freshman. Yes, he missed the first four games. But Damiere Byrd has been practicing with the first team all year, and Byrd has crazy potential. So what's going on? On the Gamecocks' second play, Byrd ran left in motion, and either the play was supposed to be a direct snap to him and let him run, or for it to come to Shaw and he would hand off, but it didn't work. Byrd collided with Shaw, turned his head as if he was asking what was going on, before Shaw alertly grabbed the ball and started running. The play lost 3 yards, and was fortunate to be that small. The kid's talents are being lost in a sea of bad decisions.
SIEVE: The absence of Kyle Nunn couldn't have hurt that much, could it? Since Nunn went out with a back injury, the Gamecocks' offensive line has looked like Swiss cheese, and it's showing no signs of getting better. Injuries are part of the game, but USC has really only had the one, and it's been night and day from the early season to today. The running game is stalling out because the line is getting no push, and with Lattimore on the shelf, that means the guy with the best chance of making nothing into something isn't an option. USC's rushing attack isn't going to magically get better, and with nothing to block up front for whoever is toting the rock, it's really ending before it starts. The Gamecocks have who they have, personnel-wise, and there's no changing it (even with Byron Jerideau taking some snaps on offense). With a week off, hopefully there will be some toughening up.
REVERSE: Yes, Kentucky was awful, but the Gamecocks' offense, beside scoring in bunches last week, worked because of one simple thing - the coaches found a way that worked, and kept doing it. The Emory and Henry, option pitches, the "Wildcat" - if it worked once against UK, it was given a chance to work again. Against the Bulldogs, USC took a step back from that. It seemed that when the Gamecocks were having moderate success doing one thing - screen passes, working the edges - they immediately went away from it on the next series. It just seemed that whenever a play hit, the Gamecocks switched away from it to something that didn't work. Perhaps that was just MSU adjusting.
REMEMBER ME?: After a stalemate early, MSU scored a touchdown and then USC matched it. Then Travian Robertson got a hand on a Tyler Russell pass and tipped it into the air, Reginald Bowens charged in and intercepted and ran it down to the 11-yard line. With a chance to seize momentum and take the lead, and knowing that Lattimore is just about unstoppable inside the 15-yard-line, what's the natural call? Here's what it's not:
Shaw missing Jeffery on a fade route to the outside corner of the end zone.
The line collapses as Shaw tries to run, and Fletcher Cox sacks him for minus-4 yards.
Shaw puts Jeffery right on the goal line, throws too high, Jeffery tips the pass up and it's picked off in the end zone.
TRUST IN ME: Another snafu came on the Gamecocks' first series of the second half. USC had driven to the MSU 25, where Lattimore was stood up behind the line on two straight plays. On fourth-and-2, with Jay Wooten on the sideline, USC inexplicably went for it. Lattimore was again hit, the ball was turned over on downs, and the game remained tied.
Everything turned out fine, but when USC was driving for the game-winning TD, you know there were some long faces thinking about that could-have-been field goal, and should-have-been touchdown.
STUNNED: Spurrier made the announcement on Sunday, and one could almost see his expression drop over the phone line. Lattimore has a torn ligament and cartilage damage in his left knee, and is out for the season.
Lattimore was not having a very productive day, and had not had the huge games he had early in the year over the past few games, but there is no mistaking the impact that this has. He didn't have to play well because of the respect he commanded from the opponent, and from his teammates. The Gamecocks are forced to try and soldier on without their heart and soul, a blow that could be crippling to USC's title hopes. The tailback position was so thin anyway, and now to lose the most sturdy and dynamic player on the field? Ugh.
To see it happen to such a wonderful young man, and representative of what all is good about college athletics, was yet another kick to the shins. Lattimore, by the timetable, will be able to come back next season and should be fully healthy, but the question that remains is will he be the Lattimore of old once he returns? It's a question that will loom over the next year, and may not ever be fully answered.
THE MEN IN THE STRIPES: As I said last week, I normally don't comment on the officials. I had to last week because of some glaring no-calls. On Saturday, it was taken even further.
How, in any football game, is there not one holding penalty called on either team? Not ONE. I saw plenty of it on both sides, and I'm not on the field, so what exactly were the officials looking at?
No personal foul for Jeffery's helmet being ripped off, despite the defender trying to remove his head while Jeffery is clearly on his back with the ball on his chest. Not going for the ball, flagrantly going for his head.
Every replay I saw had C.C. Whitlock keeping the ball in the air, hitting it off his knee until Jimmy Legree snatched it and ran. It was either an interception that was downed, or an interception that was returned way downfield. It was ruled an incomplete pass.
The SEC - the best football with the worst officiating in the country.
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