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September 10, 2012
I should have listened more carefully to Steve Spurrier.
More importantly, I should have believed him.
Even after eight years of covering Spurrier on a daily basis, after attending hundreds of practices and press conferences and digesting his every word, I still occasionally underestimate the Ol' Ball Coach, and last week was one of those times.
Entering the East Carolina game, I predicted that South Carolina would rely heavily on running backs Marcus Lattimore, Kenny Miles and possibly Mike Davis, and ram the ball down the throats of the Pirates.
Boy, was I wrong.
Instead, I failed to adhere to the Golden Rule of college football - never forget Spurrier will always be Spurrier.
Why did Spurrier develop a game plan for a struggling backup quarterback that called for USC to throw the ball 40 times? He wanted urgently to deliver a message.
With USC's dominant defense, he knew the Gamecocks could handily beat a mediocre East Carolina team either running or throwing the ball.
He chose the latter course.
After watching in horror as USC mustered a meager 67 passing yards (believed to be the lowest single-game passing figure in Spurrier's 23 years as a college coach) in the 17-13 season-opening win over Vanderbilt, he vowed to make things right.
Forget that Lattimore had just rushed for 100 yards for the ninth time in his career and shown no ill effects from the devastating knee injury that prematurely ended his 2011 season, or that the Gamecocks surpassed 200 yards rushing against the stout Commodores defense.
Fearful that USC would attain a reputation as a one-dimensional offense, Spurrier knew he needed to do something.
Problem is, he was going to have to prove his point with a second-string quarterback experiencing a crisis in confidence.
That's where I misread Spurrier.
Waiting just a few milliseconds after kickoff before calling for a deep throw down the field to his fastest receiver? Vintage Spurrier.
Boldly calling for a double pass on a touchdown early in the fourth quarter with his team safely ahead 35-3? Vintage Spurrier.
Shamelessly calling for a pass that results in a 51-yard touchdown in the final minute? Vintage Spurrier.
Finally, chastising those Gamecock fans, including the students, that left the game early? Definitely vintage Spurrier.
Remember, this is the same coach that scolded USC fans in 2006 for applauding the Gamecocks as they left the field following a hard-fought yet frustrating loss to Auburn, then the No. 2-ranked team in the country.
Throughout the week, Spurrier spoke bravely about making a conscious effort to upgrade USC's passing game. But once it appeared probable that Dylan Thompson would see significant action, I scoffed at the suggestion USC would try to throw the ball against East Carolina.
Wasn't Thompson the one that looked dazed and confused the previous week when he had to fill in for Connor Shaw for a couple of series at Vanderbilt? Yes.
To his credit, Spurrier didn't care.
When he slid the DVD of the Appalachian State-East Carolina game into the video player and watched the Mountaineers pass for 300 yards against the Pirates in Week 1, he undoubtedly visualized the tremendous possibilities for the Gamecocks.
In short, he realized ECU was vulnerable through the air and ruthlessly designed a game plan intended to exploit the Pirates' major weaknesses on defense.
Appalachian State opened the door and USC would gladly walk through it.
I circled that 300-yard figure too. But with a backup quarterback I believed Spurrier would choose to put the game into Lattimore's hands rather than have to rely on Thompson.
As a result, I predicted USC would come out with a conservative offensive game plan intended to limit mistakes by the quarterback.
Instead, Spurrier displayed remarkable confidence in Thompson, who had thrown just five passes in his career prior to his first career start.
Spurrier wasted little time showing his hand as Thompson lofted a 53-yard pass to Damiere Byrd on USC's fourth snap from scrimmage, a completion that set the stage for Lattimore's 6-yard touchdown run.
But Spurrier turned to the run on USC's second series. However, three straight carries by Lattimore produced only 8 yards and the Gamecocks punted.
While non-productive, the possession likely confirmed for Spurrier what he suspected would happen going into the game - East Carolina would focus on trying to stop USC's running game.
Well, the strategy worked for one series at least.
The Pirates couldn't have known it at the time, but that three-and-out changed the complexion of the game.
Spurrier turned his attention back to the passing game on USC's third possession and Thompson directed a five-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that saw him complete all of his four passes for 64 yards.
After that, Spurrier knew USC could throw the ball whenever it wanted on the Pirates.
However, Spurrier smartly didn't abandon the run. After the first quarter, USC had 11 pass attempts and 10 rushes. Through three quarters, the same numbers were 30 and 27, respectively.
That's the balance in play-calling that Spurrier craves.
With lowly UAB up next, you can expect more of the same on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, even though the Blazers surrendered over 260 rushing yards to Troy in their season-opener on Sept. 1.
Spurrier didn't exactly sound too keen about playing Shaw against the Blazers during his Sunday teleconference, contending it could be Wednesday before the junior signal-caller practices after securing the necessary clearances from team doctors.
USC doesn't need a fully healthy Shaw for the expected beatdown of UAB, but it sure needs him for the Sept. 22 home matchup against Missouri.
Thus, you can pencil in Thompson for his second career start on Saturday.
In the end, Spurrier proved his point that USC's passing game could indeed be relevant. His target audience? Missouri, Kentucky and Georgia. Once USC gets done with UAB, it faces three consecutive SEC games against divisional foes.
Spurrier surely wants both phases of the offense clicking on all cylinders before it squares off with the more talented defenses in the SEC on a weekly basis in order to keep them from stacking the line of scrimmage to stop Lattimore.
Yes, that applies to Kentucky as well.
The next time I want to predict a Steve Spurrier-coached team will first try to establish a dominant running game, I'll recall the East Carolina game and think twice.
Just like The Who, I won't get fooled again.
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