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January 4, 2012

Report Card: USC-Nebraska



We break down every aspect of South Carolina's last game and assign a grade. Go to the head of the class if the grades you assigned the Gamecocks match ours. You've heard the rest, now hear the best.

NO. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA 30, NO. 21 NEBRASKA 13

Quarterback
Connor Shaw had a rough start, simply due to having so much time to throw and nobody to throw it to. Used to facing SEC blitzes and pass-rushes all year, Shaw was comfortable with finding his man three seconds after the snap; Nebraska backed off, covered downfield and left Shaw alone until the four that did rush shed their blocks. Shaw tried to get things going with his legs, as he always has, but Nebraska was ready for it, knocking him down over and over again for no or minimal gain. Shaw took four sacks, but the second half dawned and Shaw became more comfortable. Much of that was two long passes to Alshon Jeffery, one that became an incredible touchdown, in the first half and much of it was Shaw making quicker, better decisions. Not an outstanding game when one watched it, but the statistics were grand - 42 net yards on 19 carries (73 rushing that was knocked back by the sacks) with a touchdown, 11-of-17 passing (two misses were simply dropped, one a touchdown) for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Most importantly, a big fat zero in the turnover department. After Shaw's predecessor threw seven interceptions to no touchdowns in three bowls, Shaw's performance was a welcome sight, even though the statistics kind of skewed the actual game play.
GRADE: A

Running back
Well done, Kenny Miles. It was his show, after a 24-yard jaunt in the first quarter and then seeing Brandon Wilds drop a wide-open pass that hit him in the hands, leaving Miles in the game. Miles was workmanlike with his 15 carries for 67 yards, and two catches for 13 yards, and finally got two touchdowns to go with the only other one of his career (in 2009). As deserving of the MVP as the winner (Jeffery) was, Miles again passed up the credit by saying that he wanted his teammate to win it. Shaw, Ace Sanders and Damiere Byrd handled the other pieces of the running game to moderate success, but Miles is the biggest part of the grade. The numbers outside of the TDs are rather pedestrian, but the heart, hustle and grit Miles brought to the game can't be ignored. Here's hoping it wasn't his last carry in a USC uniform.
GRADE: A+

Wide receiver
Welcome back to The Alshon Jeffery Show, which likely had a spectacular finale after a sizzling three-year run. Jeffery made his last catch one for the ages, perfectly timing a jump to snare a Hail Mary buzzer-beater and then dive into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. That concluded a four-catch day for 148 yards and a score, his only 100-yard game of the season and one that had long been awaited. Sanders played very well with three catches for 45 yards, Miles caught a TD and Buster Anderson again plucked a ball out of the air, side-stepped a tackle and galloped 21 yards. An overall fine day despite the receivers having to work extra hard to get themselves open, led by the magnificent Jeffery doing what he does.
GRADE: A+

Tight end
Anderson and Justice Cunningham had a catch apiece and blocked pretty well for the running game, although most of the runs were between the tackles. They held their blocks as well as the others when Shaw had all day to throw, and could peel off and pop their hands up for a quick toss. No complaints.
GRADE: A

Offensive line
With a re-shuffled lineup, USC was a bit stronger but was facing a defense that seemed to know its every move. Nebraska expertly played the run, driving the Gamecocks' interior back and into the tailbacks. It also waited for Shaw to throw or commit to running before shedding its blocking at the line and rushing at him. The line did what it could but was a bit out-weighed, and was playing with an unfamiliar rotation. Kyle Nunn played well, Rokevious Watkins played well, T.J. Johnson held his own in there, but USC still had some silly penalties. Shaw was hardly every gang-rushed, though, which is either scheme or protection, so the line was serviceable.
GRADE: B+

Defensive line
It's not that they didn't play hard, it was that Nebraska had it zoned. The Cornhuskers ran right up the middle with their center providing the wedge, clearing room for Rex Burkhead or Taylor Martinez to run up the gut and then bounce around in USC's two-linebacker scheme. The Gamecocks' greatest strength, pass-rushing off the edge, was negated due to Martinez really playing afraid of it and getting rid of the ball on a one-step drop. Still, USC held together when it counted and started cutting under the offensive line to get to Martinez and Burkhead, and the second half was a sack-fest, especially on Nebraska's last possession. As they thought it would, the Gamecocks saw that Martinez was woefully incapable of winning a game with his arm when put in the position. They collected on it after halftime.
GRADE: B+

Linebackers
After a lot of missed tackles, Rodney Paulk collected five stops while Reginald Bowens and Shaq Wilson combined for five. Burkhead began running around the edges more, which cleared the LBs to get to him, and his offensive performance of the first half was belittled in the second. As the position has played all year, not stellar, but not terrible.
GRADE: B+

Defensive backs
Antonio Allen was spying on Burkhead and managed to get to him a couple of times before he got in motion, and he also sacked Martinez once. The rest of the secondary, after having trouble adjusting to Martinez throwing so quickly, began to lock down in coverage as the safeties moved upfield. Stephon Gilmore had a big interception and D.J. Swearinger knocked the ball loose when Ameer Abdullah looked poised to score, and that helped make up for a touchdown when Swearinger and DeVonte Holloman missed reading Kenny Bell on a route to the middle of the end zone. Once Nebraska was forced to throw to get downfield, the secondary was able to settle down, get in its reads and let the pass-rush work.
GRADE: B+

Special teams
Two great returns from Bruce Ellington, a Travian Robertson block and Gilmore return of a PAT and good kick coverage. Those were the highlights. A missed 20-yard field goal, no touchbacks on four kickoffs, five punts for an average of under 40 yards and coach John Butler trying to re-teach kicking on the sideline were the lowlights. USC's special teams are just not good, although they have had some good moments this year, but then there are the others - like Chaz Sutton being flagged for two penalties on the same punt.
GRADE: C-

Coaching
The possession before halftime was horribly executed, but ended in a touchdown, no matter how flukey or fortunate. It was clear that Steve Spurrier didn't expect Nebraska to give Shaw so much room to throw, and also that Spurrier didn't expect Shaw not to throw it away under pressure. Still, he didn't use any ill-timed trick plays, and he had the sense to keep the ball on the ground. Lorenzo Ward, in his first game as solely in charge of the defense, adjusted at halftime and Nebraska suffered. Convincing win and confidence for next year.
GRADE: A-

OVERALL GRADE: A

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