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August 11, 2013

Outback Bowl in retrospect



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Upgrading my Time Warner Cable package to include ESPNU (and 180 other channels) proved a great investment Friday night, when I stayed up until about 4 a.m. the next morning watching a re-airing of the Outback Bowl. While nothing compares to the experience of watching the instant-classic live, it was incredibly interesting to watch it all play out again with seven months of hindsight to look through. Here's five takeaways from watching the game through a new lens of perspective.

1. There's plenty of talent returning. The Gamecocks lost several veteran leaders over the offseason, but I couldn't help noticing how many returning players played big roles against Michigan. Gone are the days when only upperclassmen saw playing time; the South Carolina coaching staff generally does a great job of rotating in younger guys to get them game experience, and it was no different in the Outback Bowl. Players like Nick Jones, Damiere Byrd, Mike Davis, Shon Carson - even walk-on Sidney Rhodes - got valuable touches against Michigan, allowing them to build positive momentum and morale as they headed into the offseason.

2. The Jacksonville Jaguars were paying attention. Maybe some other teams should have too, because Ace Sanders (nine catches, 92 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns and a punt return touchdown) and Denard Robinson (23 carries, 107 total yards) were putting on a great show. Fourth and fifth-rounders, respectively, in the 2013 NFL Draft, Sanders and Robinson could prove to be huge steals if the Jags can get them touches in space next season. The Jaguars also recently signed former Gamecock kicker Adam Yates to a three-year, $1,485,000 contract. Yates was 0-for-2 in kick attempts in the Outback Bowl, but converted all three of his extra points and drilled two kickoffs for touchbacks.

3. Who says Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson can't work together? Not much draws headlines like a quarterback controversy, but Shaw and Thompson have assured us all for months that nothing of the sort exists. Not only do the two quarterbacks have nothing but respect and admiration for one another, but they've proven that they can compliment each other on the field too.

The Outback Bowl saw them alternate as effectively as any one-two running back punch, and the ship sailed smoothly no matter which quarterback was at the helm. In a final drive that epitomized the entire season as well as any, Shaw led the Gamecocks into Michigan territory in six plays, then was relieved by Thompson - who tossed the game-clinching touchdown to Bruce Ellington four snaps later.

4. The whole "greatest game of the bowl season" thing really veiled a smaller, but Hollywood-worthy subplot. Watching the first three quarters of the Outback Bowl knowing how big The Hit became and how it contributed to Jadeveon Clowney's celebrity, I couldn't help but focus on the 6-6, 274-pound monster. The more I watched it, the more I saw a commonly-used movie theme developing; Clowney, an awe-inspiring talent burdened by the expectations of making a game-changing play every snap, just wasn't delivering...yet.

Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan pulled out his whole bag of tricks, trying everything short of attempted homicide to contain Clowney, and the referees were content to let it slide. The sophomore defensive end even went down for a few minutes after being speared in the man parts by, you guessed it, Vincent Smith. The madness and frustration came to a boiling point when Michigan was granted a new set of downs on a clearly-short fourth-down conversion attempt, and Clowney reached the point where he'd had enough - the climax of the story.

Moments later, Smith's helmet was bouncing downfield, and The Hit was a viral sensation. The remainder of the game merely served as falling action, and Clowney rode off into the sunset, picking up an ESPY and plenty of Heisman consideration along the way.

5. That pass rush was downright frightening. Between Clowney, Devin Taylor, J.T. Surratt, Byron Jerideau, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, there was at least one Gamecock in the Michigan backfield almost every snap. They relentlessly badgered Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner, flushing him out of the pocket and forcing him to alter the flight and direction of his throws.

Merely their presence impacted every play, evidenced by Michigan coach Brady Hoke's abnormal amount of screen and misdirection playcalls. Gardner stayed about as composed as any quarterback could have been given the circumstances, but with just Jerideau and Taylor gone from that unit, the defensive line should be an absolute nightmare for opposing quarterbacks this fall.

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