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September 1, 2013
South Carolina opened the season Thursday night with a 27-10 victory over North Carolina. Here are some of my observations from the game.
The big-play potential is there. Steve Spurrier likes to start big games with a bang. Against Georgia in 2012, it was Connor Shaw's 42-yard completion to Damiere Byrd on the second play from scrimmage that tipped the momentum. The Gamecocks also got off to a hot start on the third play of the Outback Bowl when Shaw found Byrd for a 56-yard touchdown.
Spurrier pulled the same string Thursday night, with Shaw dangling a beauty out in front of a streaking Shaq Roland for a 65-yard touchdown bomb on the game's third play. The momentum was in South Carolina's favor almost immediately, and North Carolina struggled for over a quarter to recover. Toss that in with Mike Davis' innate ability to turn any pedestrian carry into six points, and South Carolina has tons of home-run potential.
Unsung heroes on defense. The second-team defense got plenty of looks in the swampy heat Thursday night and never missed a beat. With Kadetrix Marcus' arm in a sling, backup safety T.J. Gurley was everywhere, leading the team with nine tackles in a performance reminiscent of D.J. Swearinger.
Stepping in for injured starting Will linebacker Cedrick Cooper, Marcquis Roberts registered five tackles of his own. Spur linebacker Sharrod Golightly and freshman linebacker Skai Moore had six stops apiece in their first career starts. Backup Mike linebacker T.J. Holloman had four. Kelsey Griffin had four and was credited with half a sack. Darius English and Ahmad Christian got some good looks, as did Mason Harris and Gerald Dixon Jr. It was a great night for the underdogs.
Connor Shaw was Connor Shaw. Thursday night marked the first time I've seen Connor Shaw play the late-2011 Connor Shaw since, well, 2011. As it seldom does, Shaw's stat line of 11-for-20 with 192 total yards and one touchdown didn't tell the whole story. Shaw helped spark the Gamecocks to a strong first quarter and led them the rest of the way, making good reads and avoiding the pass rush with ease. There were multiple times he did things only he can - or would - do, and it was nice to see him back to his old tricks after an injury-riddled 2012 campaign.
Mike Davis and Elliott Fry took ownership of their starting roles. Davis and Fry both earned starting jobs in fall camp, and both took steps to keep them against North Carolina. Davis got things started in USC's first drive of the game with two physical runs, then slammed the door on a potential Tar Heel comeback with a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The sophomore tailback would finish with 115 rushing yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, while Fry went 2 of 2 on his field-goal attempts and converted all three of his extra points.
Weather. The weather was bad.
Possession. One of my "keys to the game" revolved around the importance of controlling the ball - and therefore, the clock. South Carolina failed in that respect Thursday night, but compensated with big plays and turnover-free football.
The Tar Heels held the ball for just over 50 percent of the game and strung together drives of 13, 16 and 17 plays. At times South Carolina's defense struggled to get off the field, and North Carolina punished them with their up-tempo pace, forcing Lorenzo Ward to send out his second-team defense for whole drives at a time. Whether it's a conditioning problem or an execution problem, the Gamecock defense will benefit from staying off the field longer.
Shaq Roland. A former South Carolina Mr. Football, Roland is still very much an unknown quantity in a Gamecock uniform. I thought he'd turned a new leaf when he hauled in the long touchdown pass on the game's third play from scrimmage, then reality hit when he dropped a pass in the end zone later that quarter and only caught one other pass in the remainder of the game.
He's Shaq Roland. He's going to be inconsistent. It's part of his big-play nature. But does that mean he can't break out into stardom this season? His two catches for 75-yards (46 yards better than USC's second-leading receiver) and a touchdown say otherwise.
Is Victor Hampton too valuable to return punts? There's no questioning that Hampton deserves to return punts. He's arguably the team's most dangerous player with the ball in his hands, and he's a threat to put six on the board any time he's got a few yards of space to work with.
But is he the right guy to have back there? After Thursday night (and Hampton's second-quarter neck sprain), I'm not convinced. He's too reckless for his own good, he doesn't know when to scoot out of bounds, and he certainly doesn't know when to get down and avoid taking unnecessary damage on the field. (And there's always the possibility of taking an unflagged late hit.) There are plenty of other candidates (Shon Carson and Pharoh Cooper, among others) who could get the job done, but Hampton might be too valuable a player on defense for South Carolina to risk losing.
How much will Dylan Thompson factor in to the offense moving forward? USC's super-backup finished Thursday night with a quarterback rating that skyrocketed to 673.3 when he tossed a 29-yard touchdown pass to Kane Whitehurst on his only snap of the game. But how does he factor into the offense moving forward? Is he a change of pace every other drive? Every other play? At this point, I'm not sure anyone - even Spurrier - knows for sure.
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