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September 4, 2011

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly



NO. 12 SOUTH CAROLINA 56, EAST CAROLINA 37

THE GOOD

OH, CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN! If anybody not familiar with the backstory had wandered into Bank of America Stadium on Saturday and watched from beginning to end, they may have said the following when looking at South Carolina's quarterbacks - "That No. 5 is the backup??? Who in the hell is third string - Joe Montana?" It was night and day from when Stephen Garcia took over the Gamecocks' offense at the beginning of the second quarter. Misfiring on passes and runs alike, cursed with slippery hands, Garcia came in and for whatever reason, problems disappeared. The offense began running like the machine that it's supposed to be, Alshon Jeffery catching five balls for 92 yards and Marcus Lattimore anchoring the second half with his 112 rushing yards. Garcia and Steve Spurrier each pointed out that starter Connor Shaw was having some bad luck early on, and there were some dropped passes - (Jason Barnes had a night to forget in his hometown) - but the fact remained that bad luck aside, Garcia came in and the game turned around. Entering with a 17-0 deficit after one quarter, Garcia helped produce 56 mostly unanswered points. And for him to do it after being rather publicly slapped around by his coach and taking the high road afterward, no sarcastic comments or wry grins to be found, showed that maybe it is true - an old dog can learn new tricks, and Garcia has turned over a new leaf.

IS THAT ALL YOU GOT? Trailing 17-0 after a quarter and having every piece of luck turn East Carolina's way, the entire Gamecocks team could have mailed it in. Now, if they had lost, what would they have really lost - some national respect, sure, some massive local respect, but nothing that would hurt their dream of an SEC championship or playing for the national title (plenty of teams have won it all with one loss). They could have chalked it up to a bad night and came out watching their P's and Q's for the next 11 games. But they didn't. Even down 17 points, there were 45 minutes of game clock left to play. And when the worm turned, it turned quicker than Adam Sandler chasing down a horrible movie script. Three straight ECU fumbles turned into three straight USC touchdowns and a lead it never lost. Gamecocks give up after those first 17 went on the board, it could have been one of several straws that broke the back of the promised season.

MAH-KUS DAHLING: (I know how weird that looks, but go watch "Boomerang" and you'll get it) As Spurrier said, when Lattimore fumbled, it was like, "What the … did that just happen?" It's so unusual that it was hard to believe that Lattimore sometimes turns back into regular old Clark Kent. The sophomore only fumbled once last year, on a hit from Florida State's Greg Reid that would have left Evander Holyfield searching for his mouthpiece, and he also fumbled on Saturday, when the ball was simply ripped away from him during a pile-up. Following his teammates, though, and having Spurrier issue a not-very-subtle reminder that he wasn't on the team to be fumbling, Lattimore returned to form. The same pure cuts, the same knowledge of when to lower the head and charge, the same majestic mastery of running the ball produced the fifth 100-yard game of Lattimore's career. He locked the game down in the second half and ended with 112 yards and three touchdowns, pushing him to 20 for his career and making it virtually certain that he will break the record of 31 for a career, jointly held by George Rogers and Harold Green.

WAITING FOR MY CALL, JESSICA: Yes, there is a Santa Claus, and yes, South Carolina can have a kick return for a touchdown. Ace Sanders juked, weaved and broke for a 68-yard punt return score that ended any of the Pirates' fledgling hopes of a stirring rally and put first-year special-teams coach John Butler in a very good place. He could go into Spurrier's office at the crack of dawn today and ask for a 10-year extension and a 300 percent raise and stand at least a 75 percent chance of getting every bit of it. Did you see the coaches jumping up and down when Sanders broke for daylight? It made everyone think that the impossible could be possible (which is why I'm expecting a ring from Jessica Biel tomorrow saying that she's thought it over and will be Mrs. Cloninger after all). Sanders said he knew all about the last time that it had happened (Chavez Donnings in 2003) because the coaches talked about it during every special-teams meeting. The monkey's finally off the back - except that Matthew Thomas (2002) still has the last kickoff return for a touchdown in USC history.

QUICK HANDS: After USC was cursed with fumble-itis in the first half, it was ECU's turn in the second. Lance Lewis caught a pass and dropped it as Antonio Allen tackled him; Shaq Wilson saw the loose ball and leaped upon it. The snap was dropped on the next possession, Reginald Bowens was there to retrieve it. Michael Dobson plunged into the fray on the next possession; Allen straight-up ripped the ball from his hands and sprinted 25 yards for a touchdown. The Gamecocks, after seeing their own simply not hold on to the ball well enough in the first half, felt it was just as good to give as to receive.

SPURRED: The Gamecocks have been searching for someone to play the spur position as well as the guy it was created for for quite a while. Darian Stewart, such a freak of nature, was that guy and it's been a revolving door of players since he left. No more. Allen is the guy, and he's producing every game. After a six-game stretch at the end of 2010 that left him as one of the team's most valuable players, Allen started 2011 off with a bang louder than the moving truck dropping its gangplank outside Mark Richt's house. He had 16 tackles to lead the team, half a tackle for loss, two forced fumbles, two recovered fumbles, a pass breakup and a defensive touchdown. To put that in perspective, at least tackle-wise, nobody on the entire team had more than nine tackles all of last year, and Allen's previous career-high was eight. Allen's a soft-spoken player but if he keeps that up, he can talk as loud as he wants - and he should, since the NFL is watching.

BUTTERFLIES ON THE CARD: Kind of lost in the shuffle was the outstanding job that Jay Wooten did. Not only was he a perfect 8-for-8 on PATs, but he kicked off nine times (65.3 yards per kick average) and had three touchbacks.

Wooten had five all of last year.

OPEN TRYOUTS: Late in the game, Spurrier let a lot of the seldom-used players/freshmen play, but earlier in the game, with the Gamecocks trailing, he was going through all of his options. That's what got Bruce Ellington on the field.

Ellington was put in for the "Wildcat" formation (or "Wild Cock" - I just feel really uncomfortable writing that if that's the name) and looked good. Spurrier said he would get 2-3 snaps each game, every game for the duration, and I can see why. Ellington had the speed and burst to make opponents respect him, and when he was put in with fellow scat-backs Shon Carson and Sanders, it's a nightmare to defend.

He looked really good on kick return, too, after we all heard for two weeks that the job was D.J. Swearinger's to lose. He had one 60-yard scamper that got called back for block-in-the-back. The only downside of the equation is I could swear I heard Darrin Horn cursing all the way from Columbia.

IT'S J-DAY: He wasn't quite Superman, but Jadeveon Clowney played very well for a true freshman. Playing on the edge and rushing the quarterback on most plays, Clowney ended the game with seven tackles, half of one for loss, and a pass breakup. That may have been an interception, too, if Dominique Davis hadn't had the presence of mind to follow the tip and bat it down.

Room for improvement, sure, but Clowney looked very good for a guy starting his first collegiate game. He was out there to start on the first defensive snap, and had the tackle on the second. You'll see a lot of him (and you KNOW where he's from).



THE BAD

EXXON ARMOUR These new Under Armour jerseys are designed to be pretty much skin-tight, and made of a fabric that's difficult to grasp. That's so it's more difficult to be tackled.

Good idea, in theory, but that slick-ness seems to transfer directly to the ball.

The Gamecocks had five fumbles in the first half and lost four of them. Kenny Miles, Lattimore, Stephon Gilmore and Shaw each lost the handle on a ball and ECU turned three of them into 17 points. They robbed momentum and gave ECU a 10-point halftime lead.

USC tightened up afterward but for a while, it was shaping up to be like the day they stop selling the McRib.

D-FLATED*: See that asterisk? The more I think about it, the more hesitant I am to really jump on the defense because it gave up 345 yards and 37 points. First, it was a gimmick offense, one that Ellis Johnson honestly said was impossible to defend because of the variety of short passes. Second, USC was several men down with suspensions and injuries in the secondary. Third, the Gamecocks gave up one 80-yard touchdown drive, but otherwise were very fine when they forced the Pirates to go long-field. It was when the fumbles gave ECU short field position that the Pirates scored.

That's all excusable, I suppose, but there was still the secondary losing players in the middle of the field and not wrapping up tackles. Davis was also pinned quite a few times in the backfield and didn't take one sack.

I'M NOT YOUR STEPHON STONE: Gilmore is a very talented cornerback and a key to USC's defense. He had 10 tackles on Saturday.

But man, there were two plays …

Each was the same. Lewis out-jumped Gilmore twice for big plays, one a touchdown. I mean, Gilmore had it played, and Lewis just jumped over him to pull in the ball. Johnson was correct in terming the coverage "terrible."

For a guy that could legitimately be a first-round NFL draft pick, it's very disturbing to see this constantly happen. Gilmore plays very, very well most of the time, but just like last year, when he messes up, he messes up. Like, telling your MMA opponent that his mother wears combat boots messes up.



THE UGLY

RIGHT PLACE, WRONG TIME As I've mentioned before in other pieces, I respect Shaw immensely. Really good kid, works hard, studies the playbook, would never do anything to give the program a black eye. I believe Spurrier when he says that Shaw out-played Garcia in the preseason, even though I disagreed that Garcia should not start because of it.

What I'm concerned about now is many fans may start talking badly about Shaw and automatically turn up their noses if he plays again this season. Look, every team needs a backup QB, and while I certainly believe that Garcia should be given every opportunity to take every snap, I'm not stupid enough to think that a Spurrier quarterback will sail through the rest of the season unscathed.

Shaw will play again, and when he does, support it. And before you say it, I know what I wrote when the decision was handed down. I disagreed with the move then and I still do now. But that's my job, to tell my view on certain matters and report the straight news on most of the others. It's your job, as fans, to support whoever's in there. Shaw doesn't deserve a black eye simply because the other guy played better. It told me a whole heck of a lot when he stepped right up in the post-game and answered questions instead of refusing to be interviewed or hiding in the trainer's room.

C'MON NOW!: Maybe you see it differently than me. But I've been covering Spurrier for seven years now, every practice and press conference.

I am still stunned that Spurrier kind of pooh-poohed what Garcia did on Saturday night, giving him some credit but not much of the credit for winning the game.

Didn't give him a game ball. Didn't point him out as being a key to victory. Made a few snide remarks about "looking like a quarterback," with a clean face (have you seen Aaron Rodgers' mustache lately? He won the damn Super Bowl!) and how his teammates seemed to follow that.

They didn't follow Garcia because he shaved. They followed him because he came in and everything began working.

I don't have a pinpoint reason for it. All I know is what I saw. The offense was floundering for the first quarter as Shaw was in the game. ECU led 17-0.

Garcia checked in, led a touchdown drive and the game ended 56-37 USC with Garcia playing all but the last few garbage minutes.

The team played better with Garcia under center. The team responded to Garcia. You can say what you want about him (and I've said plenty over the past five years) off the field, but Saturday proved it - this team loves Stephen Garcia and will play for him.

What good does it do not to credit him? I realize Spurrier has this continuous mind game with all of his quarterbacks, but man - enough is enough. Garcia is the best chance for this team to win. He turned that game around. I ain't saying that Spurrier and Garcia have got to go fishing every Sunday, but c'mon, Steve - cut the kid some slack. He may make some completely stupid decisions off the field, but on the field, the team needs him.

He's the quarterback, your quarterback. The Gamecocks played better with him on the field. If that changes, by all means, make a change. Until then, he's your guy, and he should know that coming from you. Having a standoff and private war with the guy that controls the offense would wreck this season quicker than the release of the next vampire movie out of Hollywood.

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