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October 14, 2013

The good, bad and unknown

When the clock struck zero in Fayetteville, Ark., Saturday, the Gamecocks' 52-7 demolition job of Arkansas had become South Carolina's most lopsided victory in over two years. Here's a look at some of the good, bad and unknown revolving around the Gamecocks' third SEC win of the season.

The Good

The savior of special teams. Freshman wideout Pharoh Cooper has become a pleasant surprise for the Gamecocks in recent weeks. He appears to be the answer to South Carolina's special teams woes after an impressive performance as the starting punt and kick returner at Arkansas. Cooper returned three punts for 42 yards - including one 36-yard return that is now South Carolina's longest return of the season - and played it smart in the kick return game by not bringing anything out of the end zone.

The freshman also looked like the part as the Wildcat quarterback Saturday, taking four carries for 45 yards and completing a 3-yard pass on a bubble screen to Kwinton Smith in the fourth quarter - perhaps just to keep the defense honest. Whether or not that package becomes a significant part of the offense, Cooper's early emergence as a solid performer at the college level has opened the door for South Carolina to use him in a variety of roles.

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The workhorse. In a matchup that pitted Mike Davis against the SEC's most productive rushing attack, it was Davis who emerged as the game's best tailback. The sophomore rushed 19 times for 128 yards and a touchdown and nearly eclipsed the combined production of Arkansas' top running backs, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, who ran for 130 yards and were held scoreless. Davis did it all once again with a workmanlike performance, averaging 6.7 yards per rush despite never once carrying the ball for more than 19 yards.

After his fifth 100-yard game of the season, the sophomore sits atop the SEC in rushing yards with 742, rushing touchdowns with nine and yards per game with 123.7. Next up against the dynamic back are the Volunteers, who rank 11th in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 175.7 yards per game.

Quarterback play. Connor Shaw has played lights out this season, and his performance at Arkansas quickly became one of his best games of the year. The senior completed 19 of 28 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns and added 37 yards and another score on the ground. Shaw has now thrown for 10 touchdowns, he remains the only SEC starting quarterback who hasn't thrown an interception, and his 172.8 passer rating ranks third in the SEC behind only LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.

Behind him, redshirt junior Dylan Thompson was an efficient four of five passing with 38 yards and touchdown at Arkansas. And redshirt freshman Brendan Nosovitch got his first career game action, punching in a 7-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that probably worked wonders for his confidence after a preseason where he struggled mightily. It feels weird to say, but the Gamecocks are deep at quarterback.

Young wideouts stepped up. Receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said Wednesday he would give some opportunities to a few players who haven't seen much playing time this season, and he followed through Saturday. Shamier Jeffery caught his first career reception Saturday, then he caught four more for a total of 32 yards.

Ex-Razorback Kane Whitehurst was targeted twice and hauled in a 15-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. And Kwinton Smith - a player Spurrier Jr. likes but one who hasn't developed enough to log significant playing time - caught a pass too, his third of the season.

The defense was no longer offensive. South Carolina's maligned defense looked outmatched on Arkansas' first drive, but dominant from then on. Against one of the SEC's best rushing attacks, the Gamecocks seemed to turn the corner on defense. The second-half breakdown everyone expected when South Carolina entered halftime leading 24-7 just never came, as the Gamecocks forced one three-and-out after another, surprising anyone who watched them struggle to keep Georgia, Vanderbilt, UCF and Kentucky off the scoreboards.

South Carolina held Arkansas to four pass completions, limited them to just 16 and half minutes of possession, and held the SEC's most productive rusher, Alex Collins - with 651 yards entering Saturday, to just 69 yards on 10 carries.

Whether South Carolina's defense is back to the dominance it showed in 2011 and 2012 remains to be seen, but putting together four quarters of solid play has to be a step in the right direction.

The Bad

Injuries. Just when things seemed to good to be true, they were. Senior guard Ronald Patrick played one down too many in the fourth quarter and suffered a high left ankle sprain that leaves him doubtful to play at Tennessee. And Skai Moore's slight concussion on the game's last play could keep him out against the Volunteers as well.

South Carolina doesn't get to play Arkansas next year. After struggling against Arkansas since the annual series began in 1992, South Carolina is finally starting to get the upper hand over the Razorbacks. But just when the wheels begin to fall apart at Arkansas, the series ends and South Carolina is matched with Texas A&M, a program on the rise, for the foreseeable future.

The Unknown

Will this momentum carry over to Tennessee? South Carolina's win at Arkansas was the program's biggest win since Oct. 8, 2011, when the Gamecocks pummeled Kentucky 54-3 in Connor Shaw's first start after Stephen Garcia's dismissal. But will that positive momentum carry over into the next game? Recent history has shown otherwise.

The game after the 2011 Kentucky blowout, South Carolina needed fourth-quarter heroics from Alshon Jeffery and D.J. Swearinger to escape Starkville, Miss., with a 14-12 win over Mississippi State. And no one will soon forget that the Gamecocks followed a program-changing win over No. 1 Alabama in 2010 with a mind-boggling loss to Kentucky in Lexington.

The Gamecocks can rally around what they were able to accomplish in Fayetteville, but expecting a 45-point win every weekend now is more than unrealistic.

Is "Road Game Connor" gone for good? Connor Shaw's struggles on the road have been well-chronicled, but the senior quarterback looked like he was playing in his backyard Saturday at Arkansas. Granted, the murmurous crowd at Razorback Stadium wouldn't have intimidated an earthworm that happened to surface on the 50-yard line, but Shaw's performance Saturday could be just what he needed to shake any road-game jitters for good. His demeanor at Neyland Stadium in a few days should shed more light.

How much will Pharoh Cooper factor into the offense? Cooper looked the part as the Wildcat quarterback Saturday, and he's got the size, speed and physicality to stay there for a while. His movements were fluid, and he managed to pick up yardage with deft fakes even when Arkansas stacked the box against him in the last drive. But it's still unknown whether South Carolina intends to use Cooper and the Wildcat package in significant situations this season, or if it will be only a throwaway package with the Gamecocks ahead in the fourth quarter.

Could this team be Atlanta-bound after all? South Carolina's play Saturday and Missouri's 41-26 win in Athens, Ga., certainly raise the question. At 3-1 in the conference, the Gamecocks currently sit at a tie for second in the wide-open SEC East, along with Florida and Georgia and behind undefeated Missouri.

And with Florida running back Matt Jones gone for the year with a knee injury and several of Georgia's offensive weapons limping around, the stars could be aligning for the Gamecocks' second-ever appearance in the SEC Championship Game.

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