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October 25, 2010

Five Things We Learned

South Carolina ended its 7-game conference road losing streak on Saturday night by posting a 21-7 victory over Vanderbilt in Nashville. USC dominated the second half en route to the 14-point win that improved their record to 5-2 overall, 3-2 in the SEC. Here are five things we learned from the game:

1. YOU TAKE WHAT THE DEFENSE GIVES YOU: Vanderbilt came into Saturday night's game believing they could beat USC defensively by running the zone blitz over and over and over again. They rarely deviated from it and made few adjustments. However, the weakness in the zone blitz is the flats area is left largely unguarded, making the defense vulnerable to wide receiver screens and dump offs to that area of the field.

That's why it seems about half of Stephen Garcia's 31 completions were wide receiver screen or short passes to Alshon Jeffery or Tori Gurley. Jeffery is brilliant at catching the screen, finding an open lane and shooting upfield for about a 10-yard gain. In short, the USC offense took what the Vandy defense gave them and it paid dividends.

2. ACE SANDERS IS BECOMING A BIGGER PART OF THE OFFENSE: When Sanders broke off that 53-yard scamper in the season opener against Southern Miss, I expected he would immediately become a significant part of the USC offense. But it didn't happen. He didn't have a single carry or catch in the Week 2 win over Georgia. Against Auburn, he used his quickness to pick up a first down early in the contest, but never touched the ball again. However, things began to change in the Alabama game when he had three receptions and one rushing attempt.

He had two receptions and one rushing attempt in the loss at UK, though a couple of other passes were thrown in his direction. Saturday night, Sanders caught a season-high six passes (the stats were changed), truly becoming an important piece of the offense, and fielded punts in place of Stephon Gilmore. As the season moves beyond the midway point, it looks like the coaching staff's confidence in Sanders is growing every day.

3. STEPHEN GARCIA IS ONE OF THE TOP THREE QUARTERBACKS IN THE SEC: OK, I'll concede Auburn's Cam Newton is the best quarterback in the SEC right now. Who's No. 2? Most people would say Ryan Mallett of Arkansas, but I think Garcia has a legitimate claim to that ranking. At worst, Garcia is No. 3 based on the way he has performed the last three weeks. Since his nightmarish fourth quarter at Auburn when he fumbled twice and was unceremoniously pulled in favor of freshman Connor Shaw, Garcia has completed 68-of-91 passes (74.for 938 yards and seven TD with four INT, including a memorable 17-of-20 for 201 yards in the stunner over Alabama.

Right now, Garcia is third in the SEC in passing yards per game (240.1 ypg), second in passing efficiency (170.2 rating), fourth in total offense (249.9 ypg)) and has a TD-to-INT ratio of exactly 2-to-1 (12-6). His pinpoint throws are a major reason Alshon Jeffery is leading the SEC in receptions and receiving yardage. Great quarterbacks and great receivers fit like a hand inside a glove.

4. IT'S A SURPRISE WHEN USC DOESN'T CONVERT A THIRD DOWN: By this point, don't you almost assume USC will make just about third down chance they get in a game? USC continues to lead the SEC in converting third down chances with 54.1 percent success rate. The Gamecocks are the only conference team above 50 percent. The surge started in the Georgia game (9-of-14) and hasn't relented one bit since.

Last Saturday, the Gamecocks were 9-of-17 on third downs, continuing a streak of six consecutive games of converting 50 percent or better on third downs. The secret? Success on first and second downs (thank you, Marcus Lattimore) have created a multitude of third-and-short situations in which USC has a good chance to convert into a first down.

5. VANDERBILT ISN'T AUBURN: As Auburn climbs to the top of the college football polls, more and more national scribes are making their way to the Plains. And they're astounded by what they see. I've said for years Auburn has one of the pre-game and in-game environments in the country, and now it seems some people agree with me. Well, if you put Auburn at the top of the SEC list for best stadiums to watch a game, Who's last? Vanderbilt. Not only is it the smallest stadium in the league, it's also one of the quietest and least intimidating anywhere.

There is no buzz around the stadium before the game. There is no student section to speak of and most of the ones who bother to show up do so about five minutes before kickoff. Frankly, I've seen better environments at high school games here in the Palmetto State. Yes, Vanderbilt is a private school with a smaller student and alumni base, and they're suffered through a lot of losing seasons over the years. But let's try to generate a little excitement, shall we?

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