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October 28, 2013

The good, bad and unknown

South Carolina's comeback win at No. 5 Missouri shook up the SEC East title picture and kept the Gamecocks' conference championship dreams alive. Here's the good, bad and unknown from the game.

The Good

Resilience, leadership and intangibles. For just over a quarter of play at Missouri, South Carolina righted all of its wrongs in these areas, wrongs that cost the formerly leaderless Gamecocks two games this year. But somehow, a team void of figures like Marcus Lattimore and D.J. Swearinger played with heart anyway, Connor Shaw became a folk legend, several defensive players played out of their minds and the Gamecocks rebounded from three quarters of comically bad football to upset the nation's No. 5 team on the road. For a team whose collective character had been questioned all season, the comeback win at Missouri could signify the turning of a corner mentally and emotionally.

Connor Shaw. The senior gunslinger shrugged off a knee sprain to engineer the best game of his career in just over a quarter of play. Shaw entered the fourth quarter tasked with overcoming a 17-point deficit against the nation's No. 5 team on the road, and he was virtually unfazed. Shaw kept his warrior-like demeanor, but was also remarkably calm and collected under pressure in resurrecting South Carolina's SEC East title hopes in the eleventh hour Saturday night.

He completed 20 of his 29 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns, carved up a Tiger defense that knew the pass was coming, and couldn't be stopped when Missouri needed to stop him most. The scene of Shaw being carried off the field by his teammates - trophy in hand - must have left many a Hollywood screenwriter wishing to have had come up with that ending themselves.

The offensive line. With Ronald Patrick back in action, South Carolina's offensive line played well against the SEC's toughest defensive line Saturday night. Missouri entered the night averaging five sacks per game in SEC play, but managed only two against the Gamecocks. And the Gamecock line held its ground long enough for South Carolina quarterbacks to pass for 423 yards and three touchdowns.

Quarles, Clowney, Hampton. The defense as a whole was stout Saturday night, but these three players shined brightest. Kelcy Quarles was South Carolina's best player on defense, logging six tackles - five of them solo - two sacks and three tackles for loss. Jadeveon Clowney registered five tackles - four of them solo - a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup. And Hampton frustrated receivers 6 inches taller than him and limited Dorial Green-Beckam, the country's former No. 1 recruit and Hampton's mark for most of the game, to one catch for 6 yards.

Tight ends. South Carolina's combo of dynamic tight ends had a coming out party against Missouri, catching six passes for 86 yards. They had a few mistakes, notably Jerell Adams not coming down with a deep pass placed perfectly in his lap near the sideline, but it's good to see the tight ends factoring more into the gameplan. Adams had huge catches down the stretch, and Rory Anderson grabbed a 23-yard gain (and nearly a touchdown) on a refreshingly new-looking tight end screen in the second quarter.

Bruce Ellington. The junior wideout was everywhere Saturday night, catching pass after pass in meaningful spots. He finished with 10 catches for 136 yards, and his two touchdowns couldn't have been more crucial. The first put the Gamecocks on the board for the first time with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the second came in overtime on a fourth-and-goal from the 15-yard line, sending the game into double-overtime.

Shon Carson. Carson was a pleasant surprise Saturday night, filling in at running back while Mike Davis served his time in the doghouse. Nine touches for 41 total yards wasn't his best offensive production as a Gamecock, but many of those yards came in crucial spots when South Carolina had no one else to turn to. Carson won't challenge Davis or a healthy Brandon Wilds for carries, but he's working toward being a viable option if the coaches have to turn to him.

Tyler Hull. South Carolina's maligned punter booted three times for a 44.7-yard average Saturday. Maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Gamecocks' special teams.

The Bad

Missed opportunities. As incredible as South Carolina's comeback was, it never needed to happen. The Gamecocks left over a dozen points on the table in the first three quarters, seemingly doing whatever it took not to give themselves a chance to win. Senior cornerback Jimmy Legree dropped an interception that would have stopped a Missouri touchdown drive in its tracks.

Freshman kicker Elliott Fry missed a 40-yard field goal in the first quarter that would have given the momentum-starved Gamecocks a break. And Mike Davis fumbled away the ball when South Carolina could least afford a turnover, deflating two drives that had picked up some steam. South Carolina proved the better team Saturday, but only after bouncing back from shooting themselves in the foot through three quarters.

Mike Davis' ball security. It was nearly impossible to pick out a weakness in Mike Davis' game through seven outings, but one has finally reared its ugly head: His ball security. Davis fumbled twice in the first half, tossing dry logs onto the bonfire of South Carolina's offensive frustrations early on. It wasn't the first time Davis has struggled to hold onto the ball, but it was the first time the coaches have had to stop feeding him the ball because of security issues.

The silver lining is that ball security is both teachable and correctable, while the other things Mike Davis can do on a football field aren't.

Busted coverage. The Gamecock defenses' largely outstanding performance Saturday was overshadowed by a few mistakes that led to points for Missouri. For every pass breakup or interception, there was a coverage bust or missed tackle. Those "little" mistakes allowed big plays for Missouri (the Tigers averaged 24.9 yards per pass completion), just as they have for other opposing teams all season.

And frustratingly, most of those miscues have come on third-and-long situations when the Gamecocks appear to have their opposition stuffed. South Carolina's defense has been one down away from being elite all season, and shoring up those holes in the secondary is the first step to getting back to their dominance from 2011 and 2012.

The Unknown

Just how good is this South Carolina team? It's increasingly hard to tell given South Carolina's inconsistency over the past three weeks. For a quarter and two overtime periods Saturday, the Gamecocks looked like they deserve to be in the SEC Championship game. But can they build onto the momentum they picked up in the final minutes at Faurot Field Saturday night?

Will Brandon Wilds be back in time to see significant time this season? South Carolina running backs coach Everette Sands said a few weeks ago that he hoped the sophomore tailback would recover from the dislocated elbow he suffered at UCF in time to play this week against Mississippi State. But Wilds hasn't yet begun practicing with pads, and linebacker Cedrick Cooper took two full months to recover from suffering the same injury in August. South Carolina's offense will benefit from having Wilds back, but his recovery might not be as swift as South Carolina hoped.

Has Shaq Roland been phased out of the offense? The sophomore was primed for a breakout season and did some good things early on, but his three-game suspension seems to have taken the wind out of his sails. Damiere Byrd, Roland's former co-starter, is averaging over 85 yards per game since the suspension, while Roland has caught just one pass for 4 yards in the two games he's been back. The Gamecock offense has proven independent of Shaq Roland, leaving it unclear whether he will ever turn a new leaf and develop into a consistent offensive weapon.

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