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September 30, 2012

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly



NO. 6 SOUTH CAROLINA 38, KENTUCKY 17

THE GOOD

STUD HOSS: The best, absolute best, thing about Marcus Lattimore is how humble he is. In an age where Terrell Owens wannabes and look-at-me Steve Smith loudmouths dominate the football landscape, Lattimore sits there, deep-voiced and appreciative, as earnest as Dorothy in the "The Wizard of Oz" and thanking God, his parents, his teammates and his coach for his opportunities. How he could have handled a first half where he had 12 yards on five carries was walk into the halftime locker room and pout or start slinging folding chairs, screaming, "I'm an All-American! Give me the &%$&* ball! Do you know who I am?" Instead, he sat quietly and agreed with T.J. Johnson that the Gamecocks' offense was playing like something most people won't even say. Then he nodded when Steve Spurrier came to him and basically said, "You got a big strong back. Feel like carrying us in the second half?" First carry of the second half? Thirteen yards. He kept churning, kept lowering his head into the pile, kept pounding those two '62 Corvette pistons he has for legs into the Kentucky bluegrass and blue jerseys and ended with 120 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Lattimore broke loose once more just as USC needed him to. The Gamecocks will need him in this crucible of an October, will need him to take over fourth quarters like he does so well. Saturday was a good start.

GUTSY: Connor Shaw was honest, saying that the reason he held onto the ball so long was that his receivers couldn't get open, and that he could have dumped it much quicker or just run. Shaw did run - if he didn't, USC wouldn't have had any offense in the first half. He ended with 224 all-purpose yards and kept taking hit after hit when USC's run-blocking didn't happen (again - a topic that will be discussed later). The shoulder is fine, but Shaw is finding out that the defenses are getting better. Even the Wildcats, who aren't necessarily that talented, played lights-out on Saturday and made Shaw's job very difficult. Still, Shaw wasn't angry or petulant afterward, saying everyone should have played better. If he played any better, he'd be up for sainthood. I'll go ahead and say that Shaw will never play a down in the NFL (at least, not as a quarterback). But he commands this team better than anybody in far-reaching memory.

USC-KENTUCKY COVERAGE
Kentucky hosted South Carolina on Saturday and Gamecock Central was there in force to bring you the very best coverage.
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CYBORG: The sack may just be outlawed if this keeps up. Jadeveon Clowney is tearing up offensive lines and quarterbacks like a pit bull does a raw steak. While he was credited with just one sack against UK, Clowney had 2.5 tackles for loss, and has 5.5 sacks and 9.5 TFL for the season. He's being sent in there to disrupt, affect, hit, do anything but let the quarterback get comfortable, and he's doing that. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that when he nailed Jalen Whitlow late in the game, the pass was tipped up and into the arms of Gerald Dixon Jr., the vaunted Rock Hill To Rock Hill Connection. Next week, Clowney gets a chance to keep doing what he does, against the player that made him a staple of ESPN highlight films - Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.

THE BUSTA: Same play that helped beat Tennessee last year. Shaw rolled left, looking like he was going to try and cut the corner for a couple of rushing yards, then pushed off his back foot and launched down the sideline. There was Buster Anderson, again, creating separation and turning his back to the safety, hauling it in for 37 yards. No, he didn't score this time, but Anderson's contributions to this offense cannot be ignored. He's always there.

DIMARCO SERIES: It looked like another goal-line possession was going to end in a field goal or a questionable call, and just when I was thinking, "They should run that wheel route to the corner, that Pat DiMarco was so automatic on," here comes Ace Sanders, wheel route to the corner, touchdown. Man, I hate being right all the time.

AMERICA! HAVE YOU HEARD?: After not playing so well against Missouri, Damiere Byrd injected more confidence himself in a pretty pass-and-catch for USC's first second-half touchdown. On a textbook pass, Byrd ran a textbook route down the sideline, cutting at the 10-yard-line on a slant to the end zone. He gathered in Shaw's pass in perfect form, never stretching too far and not having to put his hands behind him to catch on his hips. They don't get much better than that. Plus, it was a great time to throw it - Shaw was getting back into the two-play playbook: Either hand it to Lattimore or stand in the pocket, wait till the line collapses and run with it. That opened the book up a little further.

NOW YOU SEE IT …: More credit to Shaw. On a few of those scrambles, he pump-faked so effectively that the shadow in front of him bit and left his feet. I would like to think that Shaw didn't holler, "Nanny nanny boo boo!" as he ran by.

GET YOU SOME: Outstanding sprint and score by Kenny Miles, who deserves every carry, yard and touchdown that he can get this season. Instead of running straight ahead, Miles cut the left corner and hit the jets. He saw the safety, playing the boundary, creeping up to intercept him and just ran right by the guy for an untouched TD. Good to see him get it, and here's hoping he gets a whole lot more.

IT'S HERE: I asked Steve Spurrier if the next game was the biggest of his tenure. He said he didn't know, and he wanted to still keep thinking about another win over Kentucky before thinking about Georgia. It does merit discussion - Spurrier played for an SEC championship in 2010; that was rather big. There have been a lot of other Top 25 matchups over the years. Shoot, his very first game (UCF, 2005) could be on the list since it was a return to his college career, with everybody wondering if the Head Ball Coach still had it. The problem with labeling the "biggest game" is it only stands for a week or so - then the next "biggest game" comes along. I'd feel comfortable with saying that this week certainly fits the criteria - likely No. 5 Georgia at No. 6 USC, winner gets a huge leg up in the SEC East race (although Florida, like the Bulldogs and Gamecocks, is also 3-0 in the league), ESPN "College GameDay" in town, night game in October. One thing's for sure - come Saturday, there's gonna be some hell up in here.



THE BAD

ONLY AT CAROLINA: Yeeeahhhh. Whitlow fades back, sees his man in the corner, throws, but it's too high and Jimmy Legree (who has played his tail off these first five weeks) tips it. The ball arches into the air - and comes down in the arms of a Kentucky receiver for a sizable gain. To be clear, I don't say "Only at South Carolina" a whole lot anymore, but they're still out there.

AND BACK TO SQUARE ONE: Joe Robinson was the toast of the town last week, bidding for a lifetime contract, a promotion to assistant head coach and a downpayment on a yacht. Now, he may have been stuck with the hotel bill upon leaving Lexington. USC's special teams are back on the (censored) list this week after a miserable first half against Kentucky and a so-so second half. Sanders had no room to run. Bruce Ellington was again taken out of the equation (although it's hard to blame Robinson for that when kickers keep launching the ball out of the end zone). Tyler Hull got a punt blocked - on a play that I thought was illegal now (gunners jumping over the three men in front). The first kickoff return of the game, while called back due to penalty, was nearly broken to the house (although Adam Yates stayed with it and managed to trip the guy up). It never ends.

SAW IT COMING: Earlier this week, Spurrier praised Johnson for being so much more efficient with his shotgun snaps. He might as well have said he was throwing a no-hitter. Fourth-and-short, USC trailing 17-7, trying to get back in the game, Johnson gave Shaw a double load of buckshot when the snap went sailing over his head. Ugh.

WHERE'S THE STICKUM?: Shaw, riding a string of 20 straight completions, screened to Ellington. Good pass, hit him right in the hands, and dropped. Shaw would never say that he wanted or cared about the record, and it ended up not being a huge deal. Just would have been nice to see a USC quarterback with a bit of SEC history.

NO MOORE: I feel bad for the kid, I do, because it could have just signaled the end of his chance to be a solid player this year. Shaw couldn't have thrown a better ball to D.L. Moore, Moore coming off the route as Byrd did and Shaw dialing it into his hands in the end zone. It didn't seem to me that he needed to leave his feet - if he'd have kept running, it would have snugged right into his ribs - but he dove, caught and dropped the ball on the landing. Moore's just snakebit, and while he practices very well (which earned him the start), Spurrier can't afford to waste time with players who aren't producing, especially when given that kind of chance. His philosophy has always been, "First guy's not playing, next guy's going in." We'll see if Moore holds onto his starting role, but if I was a betting man, I'd say no.

WELCOME BACK?: Akeem Auguste jogs onto the field for just his second game among the last 17, and it's great to see, and then Whitlow throws, and Auguste's man not only catches the ball, but Auguste is flagged for pass interference. I'm still scratching my head at that one. Interference, and he still caught it? Double ugh.

LUCK OF THE DRAW: USC spent all week preparing for drop-back passer Maxwell Smith, then Byron Jerideau does his job by rushing Smith and putting pressure on him, Smith goes down holding his ankle, and Whitlow comes in. Suddenly, USC's defense goes from outstanding to pitiful. A true freshman did whatever he wanted to in the first half. To its credit, USC responded in the second half, accumulating seven sacks for the game. But for the first half, the Gamecocks got jobbed by themselves for making good plays.

HAVEN'T YOU LEARNED?: Two straight weeks, two straight goal-line possessions, two straight failures. Each startlingly similar. Last week, it was third and fourth down from the 1 and Lattimore never touched the ball, as Shaw was held up twice. This week, Lattimore was stuffed on third down, USC called timeout, and went with Shaw up the middle on fourth down for no gain. Even if Lattimore didn't get in on fourth down, Spurrier should at least give it to him. Then, it's disappointing but a case of, "The best guy for the job didn't get it done that time." Otherwise, it's Second Guess City. There should be no discussion, whether defenses are planning on it or not. On the goal line, Lattimore gets the ball. Period.

NO PUSH (EXCEPT IN VEGAS)": Where is USC's run-blocking? Lattimore is constantly stuffed through the middle and USC was being held back by a bad Kentucky team (95th nationally against the run) in the first half. This offensive line is supposed to be the most talented and deepest that Shawn Elliott has ever had, yet it's getting stonewalled. Lattimore doesn't need that much room, and to its credit, when the Gamecocks switched to Power-I, the line was much better. The problem is that in October (Georgia-LSU-Florida), the defensive lines are much more stout. There might not be a second half to save, ya follah?



THE UGLY

THIRD DOWNS: Like most of the stats from the game, everything got better in the second half. Still, for a while there, Kentucky loved to get a third down. It was about automatic that it would result in a first down. USC hadn't seen that kind of thing since Charlie "Third and Long" Strong pulled up stakes. Third-and-7, Whitlow rushes for 12. Third-and-11, Raymond Sanders breaks ankles on a 24-yard run. Third-and-8, Whitlow runs for a touchdown. The defense settled down and began busting the Wildcats' chops, but it was one of those ominous thoughts that seemed to pop up - next week, the opponent might not be so forgiving.

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