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September 30, 2013

The good, bad and unknown



South Carolina's 28-25 win at UCF left fans, coaches and media alike scratching their collective head. Here's a breakdown of the good, the bad and the unknown from a weekend in Orlando.

The Good

Mike Davis: The Chosen Run. Where would this team have been Saturday without Davis? The sophomore churned out yet another dominant performance, rushing for 167 yards and three of South Carolina's four touchdowns.

He made the most of his season-high 26 carries, dragging UCF defenders all over the field and showing some agility as he averaged 6.4 yards per carry. He's the complete package at running back, he makes the "good" section of this column every week, and he's going to be the keystone for South Carolina's success for a long time.

Tyler Hull. South Carolina's SEC-worst punting game improved behind a great performance by the redshirt junior. Hull punted three times for a 47-yard average and pinned two of them inside UCF's 20-yard line.

But Hull's best play of the day (and his career?) came during South Carolina's second drive of the first quarter, when his first punt of the day landed inside the 10-yard line and inched toward the end zone. The pigskin rolled end-over-end toward the sideline before coming to rest at the 2-yard line. It was a beautiful thing to watch, especially given South Carolina's punting troubles the past few seasons.

Dylan Thompson's pocket presence. Thompson was everything Connor Shaw wasn't in the pocket Saturday. After Shaw looked squeamish in the pocket during South Carolina's first drive, Thompson stood confidently there the rest of the game. The redshirt junior moved with NFL-like efficiency in the pocket, sliding and shuffling around enough to buy himself time to make a play.

Only when things started to crumble did Thompson resort to scrambling. And he scrambled with a pass-first, run-second mentality, only crossing the line of scrimmage when there was nothing else available.

To put it into numbers, Connor Shaw was in the game for eight plays, and he ran the ball four times. Thompson managed the offense for 72 plays and carried it just six times. More on this later.

Putting a knee down. South Carolina's performance in the return game prior to playing UCF left the coaches (and fans everywhere) wishing the players would just settle for a touchback. There's no shame in taking a knee and giving your offense the ball at the 25-yard line, especially when the alternative is taking balls out of the end zone and getting stopped at the 15.

Saturday, South Carolina's return game was at its finest simply because there wasn't a return game. UCF kicker Sean Galvin had four touchbacks, and the Gamecocks never once returned the ball out of the end zone. In fact, South Carolina's only return was Bruce Ellington's onside kick recovery and 31-yard run-back late in the fourth quarter. It was a brilliant, heads-up play by Ellington that nearly went for six.

The Bad

Connor Shaw on the road. After a masterful appearance at home against Vanderbilt, the senior quarterback became "Road Game Connor" again, looking timid in the pocket in front of a crowd of 47,605. Shaw lost composure on dropbacks when his first option wasn't open, trusting his legs rather than his arm to bail him out of the pocket. Shaw attempted just two passes in his only drive of the game, but ran the ball four times (Mike Davis had just one carry).

And while Shaw is fast enough to chew up yards on the ground, carrying the weight of the offense with his thighs makes him susceptible to unnecessary punishment and turnovers. That's why two drives have ended this season on Shaw's fumbles, as well as why Shaw won't be back in pads for another two to three weeks at best.

My proposal: When Shaw returns, give him a running budget - a set number of times he's allowed to carry the ball on non-designed scramble plays. I'd put the limit at 10, just to give him room to be creative. If he goes over the budget, take him out and put in Thompson, who is more than willing to stand tall in the pocket.

The object isn't to get Shaw out of the game; I think he's the team's best quarterback in any given situation. The purpose of the budget is to give the senior quarterback a mindset that every carry has to be worth it, that he can't continue to dive into oncoming traffic for measly 3-yard gains, and that the offense benefits when he gets the ball into the hands of his teammates.

For a warrior like Shaw, it may take something like a running budget to convince him that there's no shame in dumping the ball off and, dare I say it, throwing the ball away.

Dropped passes. South Carolina's offense struggled to maintain any semblance of a rhythm in the first half, and a big part of that was because of dropped passes. Rory Anderson dropped two in the first half. Bruce Ellington dropped one. The usually sure-handed Nick Jones dropped what could have been a game-changing 40-yard reception inside the 10-yard line.

Against UCF, the Gamecocks could afford not to score in the first half. But against SEC competition, a failure to hang on to the ball - whether it's Jones' deep ball or one of Anderson's first down drops - can stall drives and prove to be the difference in games.

Tackling. Or lack thereof. It's impossible to place blame on any one unit. South Carolina's defense struggled to wrap up at all three levels against UCF. Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton narrowly missed stuffing Blake Bortles in the backfield more times than I wanted to notice. The linebackers took bad angles, and the secondary took worse angles.

Blake Bortles looked like a Heisman candidate in the first quarter, and UCF marched down the field for a touchdown on a first drive that was based more on South Carolina's mistakes than anything special the Knights were throwing at them. The Knights also had two passing plays go for 73 yards or more in the fourth quarter, highlighting a need to tighten things up in the secondary.

The Unknown

What happens if Dylan Thompson goes down? Here's a thought that will make your knees weak. One of, if not the best, backup quarterbacks in college football, Thompson has spent the past year as South Carolina's safety net in case of an injury to Connor Shaw. But who do the Gamecocks turn to now if Thompson has to come out, even for just one play if his helmet pops off?

Connor Mitch is redshirting, and the coaches will only turn to him if they absolutely have no other option. Perry Orth hasn't played a down at the college level. That leaves Brendan Nosovitch, a former Parade All-American who struggled throughout fall camp, to take the reins in case the worst should happen. Head coach Steve Spurrier says "Nossy" has practiced well since the season started, but South Carolina would probably be better off if it never came to that.

Can Mike Davis continue to do it by himself with this workload? Davis finally got the amount of carries he deserves Saturday, and it looks like he'll get a similar workload in the next few weeks. Brandon Wilds will need time to recover from a dislocated elbow - the same injury that kept Cedrick Cooper off the field until Saturday - and Shon Carson just hasn't been the player he was on high school film.

As if the Marcus Lattimore references weren't already piling up, now it looks like Davis will be called upon to put the team on his shoulders just like No. 21 did so many times in his career.

What kind of season could Jadeveon Clowney be having right now? Being in the right place at the right time isn't an art, and it's not a skill. It's an innate ability, an instinct few players - like D.J. Swearinger, Stephon Gilmore or Troy Polamalu - possess. Clowney is almost there, but the different between "almost" and "there" has been what's kept him off of SportsCenter Top 10's all season long.

A missed arm-tackle here. A few inches from an interception there. A split-second late to a fumble recovery somewhere else. It's a stomach virus one game, a required pre-game IV the next, and bone spurs all season long.

It's been a matter of inches, not yards, that has rendered Clowney quiet this season. The All-American had two tackles and a quarterback hurry against UCF, but he was a total of about 23 inches from having three sacks, a fumble recovery, an interception and maybe even a touchdown. You've got to think that at some point the breaks will start falling his way, but it could continue to get even more frustrating for him if they don't.

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