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January 2, 2012

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Nebraska

GamecockCentral.com's David Cloninger breaks down the best, worst and plain nastiest moments from No. 10 South Carolina's 30-13 win over No. 21 Nebraska.



NO. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA 30, NO. 21 NEBRASKA 13

THE GOOD

FINALLY FINISHED: I don't think I'm alone when I say that many folks were starting to forget what this felt like. It's been since Dec. 29, 2006, that anyone connected with South Carolina football has gone into the offseason off a win. After three straight bowl-game losses where lack of focus and discipline were bemoaned, the Gamecocks came together in Orlando and worked their tails off. They didn't want another disappointment, or for the winningest senior class in school history to go out with another defeat. Then, as they have all year, they took a solid punch, stayed on their feet and jabbed back with so many rights and lefts that the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot across from them had no choice but to pop his head up. USC trampled Nebraska after a masterful game plan from Bo Pelini threatened to turn another Florida vacation into the Siberian gulag. Steve Spurrier, looking younger by the day, took the mic and said the win was for every Gamecock, ever, and the hefty traveling crowd roared its approval. A lot of car flags and a lot of smiling drivers on I-95 north today.

THESE GO TO 11: Eleven wins for the first time. It's been a long time coming. As one fella told me afterward, "You can tell the 1984 team that they can kiss our … " Yeah, a little vulgar, but you get the idea. It's not that the 1984 team lorded the only double-digit win season in school history over anybody else - knowing quite a few players from that team, they actually were disappointed that 27 years after the fact, they were still the only ones to do it. They all thought that after they did it, 10-win seasons would be rolled off the assembly line like the slapped-together Fords that are currently occupying our nation's roadsides. It just didn't turn out that way. Now, though, the 2011 team will forever be the high-water mark of USC football - until a 12-game winner comes along.

BIG POPPA PUMP: How about that Alshon Jeffery (labeled as "Ashton Jeffery" on the pressbox PA)? Four catches, 148 yards, a ridiculous touchdown that just may be the greatest play in USC history. If that was his last game (and while we deal with absolutes in journalism, let's be honest - I'm only saying it because technically he could still come back. He's as good as gone), he surely made everyone remember what he was and who he is. The Gas Pumper from Calhoun County snatched a jump-ball away from Buster Anderson and two Nebraska defenders, landed, then had the presence of mind to turn and dive over the goal-line for a touchdown just before halftime, and the shell-shocked Huskers never recovered. Jeffery was ejected for fighting (although he never threw a punch - he was tossed, I believe, because he want two hands to the chin, which is a flagrant penalty), yet still won game MVP honors. He definitely deserved them - he made the biggest play of the game. Jeffery leaves the Gamecocks as their all-time leading receiver, and is one hell of an act to follow, just because he made it look so easy. His senior year didn't have the production he would have liked, but he was still able to make things happen when the ball came his way. From the Sports Illustrated preseason cover featuring him with the sub-head "Greatest Gamecocks Team Ever," Jeffery proved that yes, indeed it was. He will be departing barring something unforeseen, but if recent history is any indication, there will be another (Rice-McKinley-Jeffery-This Space Available).

LAST CALL?: As a fan of his personality and the chemistry he brings to the team, I surely hope that Kenny Miles does return next season. I would completely understand if he doesn't - players want to play, and Miles has a free season without the transfer penalty due to being a graduate, and he knows that his playing time at USC is not guaranteed. Still, the way he never quit believing that he would be on the field, and didn't whine, pout or show his behind when a bad game or an injury put him back on the bench, was quite encouraging. Not encouraging - just strange, in this day and age of coddled athletes and recruits being praised as moon-hangers before they ever get on the field, for one kid to still be old-school in his approach to the game. Teams need players like Miles, who cheers for everybody else even if it's at his expense. Terrific to see Miles play his last two games like his hair was on fire, churning orange underneath his cleats against Clemson and then sticking his head into those Nebraska boys, again and again, when most of them resembled the floats in the Capital One Bowl parade. He scored his long-awaited second career touchdown (his only other one was against S.C. State in 2009) and then added his third late in the game to final-stamp the victory. Outstanding effort from an outstanding individual, with yet another nod to his team-first attitude - when I asked if he thought he deserved MVP over Jeffery, he grinned and said, "No way! I wanted Alshon to get that."

PICK-ME-UP: Nebraska marches right downfield and scores on its first possession, after USC couldn't get anything done on its first possession. So just as the Huskers are about to go up 7-0, Travian Robertson sticks up a hand big enough to palm a trash barrel and swats the PAT up and away, while Stephon Gilmore runs under it, shifts right into fourth gear and blazes to the end zone. 7-0 becomes 6-2 and that becomes a big point in the first half, although it was moot in the second. The point is, the momentum was immediately swung around.

BIG-PLAY D.J. Although perhaps a better nickname would be "Superman." The junior from Greenwood did it again, producing a turnover just when momentum was about to be placed on the other team's sideline. Ameer Abdullah (who had better be nicknamed "The Butcher") broke free on the outside and had 7 yards of daylight in front of him before this garnet blur shot out of nowhere like it had been blasted from a cannon. D.J. Swearinger, who must have been a boxer in a past life, soared in and knocked the ball loose, so quickly that Abdullah had no idea what happened and was craning his head around trying to find it. It fell right in front of a surprised but happy Aldrick Fordham, who had enough sense to try not to run with it and just jumped on it, curling around in the fetal position. Swearinger has a gift for making the big plays, like his diving interception to clinch the Mississippi State game, and Monday was another stage for him.

POOH BEAR (bonus points if you get the reference): Ace Sanders re-emerged after a season basically spent being ignored. All the receivers endured a frustrating year, especially Jeffery, but Sanders was in the same situation after a freshman All-SEC season. The Gamecocks' quarterbacks simply couldn't get the ball to anybody, much less a 5-foot-7 slot receiver who could get open but wasn't going to out-jump anybody. But without Bruce Ellington for a large majority of bowl practice, USC needed another speed option to tote the ball besides Miles or Connor Shaw, so Sanders got his number called. He had three carries for 15 yards and three catches for 45 yards, including a huge leaping grab over the middle on third-and-17 late in the game. He was also used in a bit of Todd Ellis' favorite word ("trickeration") when he took a direct snap and huddled behind T.J. Johnson, a variation of the old fumble-rooski, before being squashed on the rush attempt.

DON'T GET CUTE: On USC's first touchdown, the Gamecocks faced fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard-line as Spurrier signaled a timeout. Two straight runs up the middle had yielded nothing, so the Head Ball Coach opened up the back of the playbook. Or did he? I really think he looked at it for a second, then said, "Why be dazzling when you don't have to?" The risk far out-weighed the reward, so Spurrier sent Shaw back in and told him to run the low-risk, high-percentage play - another run up the middle. Johnson pushed, Shaw rode his back - touchdown.

BENCH STRENGTH: Great to see Kyle Nunn back out there, when a back injury and subsequent blood clots in his leg derailed his senior season and knocked a dent in his NFL hopes. He played very well, which everyone knew he could but didn't know if he would, due to simply being out of practice for over two months. Dylan Thompson also got to play after Shaw was leveled with a helmet-to-helmet shot, as he handed off to Miles for a TD and kneeled the victory away. But my favorite part of it was what a USC staffer pointed out to me afterward - walk-on fifth-year senior Josh Hinch was put in on the last kneel-down. It was his first and only collegiate play, but meant he can now be added to the list of "official" Gamecock football players (you have to appear in one game to be on the list). Hinch was the backup to Brandon Wilds against Tennessee and would have gone in if Wilds had gotten hurt or had not been doing the job, but didn't. He got to go in against Nebraska, though, and is part of the best team in USC history. His ring will be just as shiny as anybody else's.

THE WHAMMER: Lorenzo Ward had a solid debut as USC's defensive coordinator, with his boys holding Nebraska to a mere 137 rushing yards (the Huskers were averaging over 220) and 253 for the game. It started roughly, missed tackles and the fact that Taylor Martinez was dumping the ball too quickly to get the pass-rush on him, but Ward adjusted. He brought his safeties closer to the line and rolled them over on some downs, while he told his defensive ends to start cutting inside more. Then he added himself to USC legend when he was told of Pelini's post-game comments, that he truly thought that while the Huskers lost, that they were the better team. Ward's response? "The scoreboard speaks for itself. I'd hate to know I just got beat by 17 points if I had the better team." "Whammy" will have to be retired for at least a week, in favor of "Zinger."

SMIRKING O. SPURRIER: He was in hibernation. After learning that USC surely wasn't Florida, Spurrier had to become much more close-mouthed and tight-lipped. Gone were the days of constantly ribbing opponents because he and they knew that they still couldn't beat him. Now, after an 11-win season and a year where the Gamecocks fought through adversity and an entire list of distractions to still reach a major plateau, you could see it brimming. Spurrier answering a question by first asking where the reporter was from, because he (falsely) thought the guy hadn't been watching USC all year. Then by wise-cracking how Shaw had such a good year, but "he's going to get the ball out of his hand quicker, right, Connor?" as Shaw slightly smiled and said, "Right, sir." The going down the line of fans waiting outside the team bus, signing autographs (that never, never happens, which is why even his wife had her jaw on the ground watching it). The anecdote of telling special teams coach John Butler during the game that he was "acting like an idiot" on national TV during the game. You can see it coming out in him, although I don't believe that he'll ever been the constant smart-mouth that he was at Florida. But still, it's refreshing to see a 66-year-old man getting younger by the day, when the USC job has been known to wear out quite a few people. It really sets up well for the future.

AND SPEAKING OF: Yes, there will be some early departures for the NFL. Yes, it will be tremendously hard to lose this group of seniors. Yes, two assistant coaches have already left and there will at least be whispers of at least one more potentially leaving. But the program is in a very good place. In-state kids have only grown up with the Gamecocks being a successful program. The Gamecocks won a "New Year's Day" bowl on national TV. Spurrier isn't going anywhere. Records are falling by the game, for individuals and the team. Only 12 years ago, the Gamecocks couldn't win one of the 11 games. Now, they've won 11 of 13 in a single season, and 20 of 27 over two years. At long last, USC has become one of the punchers, instead of one of the faceless punch-ees.



THE BAD

RED-HANDED: Penalties happen, but USC coughed up two that extended Nebraska drives. First, Kelcy Quarles facemasked his man on a punt, which gave the Huskers a first down. Then, Gilmore blatantly interfered with a third-down pass that was way uncatchable for another first down. The Gamecocks were beginning to slip into that trend where the only time they mess up is where they really mess up.

MISSING IN ACTION: It definitely got better (Nebraska's last series ended on three straight sacks) but for the first half, Martinez's quick throws were negating USC's pass rush. Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor were doing their jobs but often had no one to hit after Martinez had already thrown, handed off or taken off running. USC's greatest strength was neutralized right away, but that was only a first-half problem.

ANYWHERE!: It was often maddening to see Shaw sit back in the pocket, empty backfield, for a good 7-10 seconds while going through his complete list of check-downs - twice. It was smart of him not to throw to a covered receiver, and that's a testament to Nebraska dropping seven and blanketing the receivers, but lineman and backs can't hold blocks forever, and that's where the problems arose. Nebraska started crashing in and Shaw would take the sack instead of throwing to the Gatorade cooler or the cheerleaders. Much of it, I believe, was that he was so used to facing blitzing SEC defenses that he didn't know what to do with all the time in the world, but no receivers. Good gameplan from Pelini, and Shaw only missed six of his 17 throws (two of which were flat dropped). He'll get better - keep in mind, he played really one quarter in the first half of the season.

NO HANDS: USC fumbled four times in the first half, but lost none of them due the first rolling out-of-bounds and the other three being ruled dead either on penalty or because the runner was down before the ball popped loose. For a team that re-stressed ball control after a month-long layoff, it was extremely unsettling, but no harm, no foul.

BENCH STRENGTH: It's nobody's fault, per se, because the kid had a broken leg. That's obviously hard to play on, especially for an offensive lineman. It just would have been nice for Shawty himself, Terrence Campbell, to play a snap. Great kid, great attitude and personality, great representation of what every team should had. Campbell wasn't the most talented guy in the world, but he busted his butt every time he got on the field.



THE UGLY

WOMP WOMP WOMP: Shaw hits Jeffery with a beautiful 78-yard catch-and-run to set up shop at the goal line, and the Gamecocks line up for a six. First down, Miles stuffed. Second down, Shaw stuffed. Third down, a delay of game flag saves a play where Miles was in motion, Shaw never got the ball into his hands and it popped over the pile and loose into the end zone. Third down again, Damiere Byrd runs a reverse to the weakside that gets nowhere. Fourth down, Jay Wooten on for a chip-shot field goal, which is shanked. Where's the Tylenol?

ST IS SHORT FOR STINKER: Poor, poor Butler. He went from being a candidate for a mid-game promotion to Assistant Head Coach to having to pay for his own hotel room for the week. After Robertson blocked that PAT and Gilmore ran it back, then Ellington churned out two straight solid kick returns, Butler and the Gamecocks' special teams were whooping it up on the sideline. Finally, they were making a difference. Then … Punts and kickoffs going out-of-bounds or well under 40 yards. A missed field goal. Butler frantically trying to re-stress kicking technique on the sideline while Spurrier incredulously looks on. THREE penalties on one return - two on Chaz Sutton, who held, then blocked in the back, and another block in the back. Obviously, Butler's hire was not going to fix USC's numerous special-teams problems overnight, but man. There needs to be a serious re-focus on this for next year. Wooten is gone, as is punter Joey Scribner-Howard, and that leaves a lot of walk-ons and one scholarship punter, Patrick Fish, who couldn't crack the two-deep this year. In the current process of trimming fat and deciding on scholarships, I'd recommend that one be given to a kicker. Ryan Succops and Spencer Lannings don't come along every day.

RE-TWEET: For about the eighth time this season, I was ripping Spurrier's clock management via Twitter at the end of the first half. It was too familiar, and too ugly, to watch. USC had 38 seconds with two timeouts to move 71 yards for a touchdown, or around 40 yards to give Wooten a shot. Shaw ran for 11 yards, then took the snap and sat back in the pocket looking for a receiver for a good 20 seconds before throwing to Jeffery for 9 yards. That left seven seconds on the clock and I was wondering, aloud, why in the hell wasn't Shaw told to check-down once, twice, then take off for the sideline? Or run two routes to the sideline with one box-in over the middle? What I didn't realize was Spurrier had that Hail Mary cooked up and ready on the kitchen table. Silly me.

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