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November 18, 2013

The good, bad and unknown

South Carolina squeezed out a 19-14 win over Florida Saturday night to keep its SEC Eastern Division title hopes alive. Here are some good and bad takeaways from the game, plus some unanswered questions the game raised.

The Good

Patience and grit. South Carolina played to Florida's strengths, but beat the Gators at their own game. It was an ugly, physical contest of two teams who don't have much love for each other, but the Gamecocks did just what they needed to do to win. Nothing more; nothing less.

The defense missed some tackles, but made stops when it needed them most. The offense was out of rhythm for much of the game, but did just enough to get Elliott Fry within field goal range five different times. And Fry missed one kick, but converted four others. It wasn't the 52-7 beatdown South Carolina delivered to Arkansas a month ago, but this win -- because of the pure grit it revealed in South Carolina's players on both sides of the ball -- is probably much sweeter.

Elliott Fry. The team put its faith on the shoulders of a 150-pound freshman kicker who missed an extra point attempt at Georgia and embarrassed himself with a bad miss at Tennessee, and he delivered by accounting for 13 of South Carolina's 19 points against Florida. Fry sandwiched a missed kick in the middle of four made ones, including a career-long 45-yard kick in the second quarter, the go-ahead field goal with 6:43 left in the game, and a 43-yarder with 2:16 left that padded South Carolina's lead to 19-14.

The missed 38-yard attempt may eat at him for a while, but Fry has earned the scholarship Nick St. Germain left on the table.

Sharrod Golightly. Golightly keeps getting better and better. The junior led the Gamecocks with six tackles against Florida, including half a tackle for loss. He seemed to be all over the field, hustling to the ball and disrupting plays in the backfield. He's developing into the player no one expected him to be after the four or five games this season, and his continual improvement -- combined with the occasional boneheaded mistake from Jordan Diggs -- have made him one of South Carolina's best defenders of late.

The rise of Shon Carson. The unlikeliest of heroes stepped in to help South Carolina beat Florida. Mike Davis didn't have his usual impact, and Brandon Wilds opted not to play with a gimpy hamstring, so Shon Carson was left to carry the ball 13 times for 102 yards against the Gators.

Carson showed an unusual explosiveness between the tackles, breaking off runs of 13 and 58 yards through the heart of Florida's defense, with the latter delivering the Gamecocks out of the shadow of their own goalposts and into Gator territory to set up a fourth-quarter field goal. Carson's willingness to step up is one of the primary reasons South Carolina still has a postseason worth playing for.

Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney battled back from a first-quarter injury to record five tackles -- three of them for losses -- against Florida. Though Skyler Mornhinweg's lack of pass attempts -- just two dropbacks in the first half -- limited Clowney's ability to record sacks, the consensus All-American looked back to his 2012 form, gobbling up helpless victims in the backfield and impacting every play as only he can.

The Bad

Shaw wasn't his usual self. Connor Shaw lacked his usual mobility for the third-straight game since he went down against Tennessee, gaining just 3 rushing yards on eight carries. It allowed Florida's defense to hone in on him and left South Carolina missing a vital dimension of its offense -- the threat of the quarterback keeper.

He also overthrew several passes he probably wished he could have back, missing several targets by a matter of inches. On one second-quarter drive, Shaw overthrew a wide-open Bruce Ellington on a corner route and a wide-open Damiere Byrd on a deep ball down the sideline, both of which would have easily gone for touchdowns. The drive ended in a field goal. Shaw was also off on what would have been a third-quarter touchdown pass to Shon Carson, and he managed to overthrow the ever-athletic Shaq Roland multiple times.

Shaw is nearly unstoppable when he's playing at home, he's 100 percent healthy and he's dialed in, but he was just a little bit off Saturday night. That proved to be the difference between a nail-biter and what could have been a big win for South Carolina.

Defense was suspect. South Carolina knew Florida was going to run the ball on nearly every snap, but still couldn't keep the Gators from reaching the 200-yard mark on the ground. Florida third-string quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg attempted just two passes in the first half, yet the Gamecocks didn't load the box to stop the run, took bad angles and seemed surprise when Gator tailbacks broke arm tackle after arm tackle on the way to the end zone.

Florida's first touchdown of the game, a 20-yard first-quarter scamper from Kelvin Taylor, was a model of bad tackling and worse angles, and the second Gator touchdown, which came on a Taylor run from the Wildcat formation, wasn't much better. Throw in a pair of untimely 15-yard penalties from J.T. Surratt and Jordan Diggs, and it wasn't an ideal night for Lorenzo Ward and company.

Special teams mistakes nearly proved costly. Placekicker Elliott Fry and punter Tyler Hull got a pass when South Carolina came away with the win, but they made mistakes earlier in the game that could have been toxic. With South Carolina down 14-6 and in desperate need of some positive momentum heading into halftime, Fry missed a makeable 38-yard kick to send the Gamecocks into the locker room empty-handed.

Tyler Hull's punted 26- and 25-yard shanks before redeeming himself by placing a 49-yard punt inside the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. And, as it appears to be a force of habit, Landon Ard took a break from booting kickoffs into the end zone to hit a squib kick out of bounds.

All three players performed well in the grand scheme of things, but their mistakes could have been devastating for a team that couldn't afford to make them in the SEC Eastern Division race.

The Unknown

Is South Carolina destined for Atlanta? The events of Saturday night are enough to make one wonder if Angels in the Outfield were based on a true story. An improbable 73-yard touchdown catch on fourth and 18 cracked open the SEC Championship Game door for South Carolina, and the Gamecocks pushed it open even farther themselves, but it's still up to either Ole Miss or Texas A&M to keep Missouri from slamming it shut.

South Carolina was probably robbed of SEC Eastern Division titles the past two seasons by unfortunate circumstances, but it seems this season could be making up for it.

What's up with Brandon Wilds? The redshirt sophomore was held out of the Mississippi State game against his will while he recovered from a dislocated elbow, but held himself out against Florida when the coaches wanted to use him, citing an issue with his hamstring. Perhaps more importantly, why is it okay for one medically-cleared player to hold himself out when his team needs him, but not okay for another to do the exact same thing? Maybe Jadeveon Clowney is wondering that himself.

Should South Carolina make better use of all four downs? The Gamecocks have converted exactly two-thirds of their fourth down attempts this season, and Tyler Hull's inconsistency (seriously, what's the difference between a 25-yard punt and a 25-yard interception?) is reason enough to put that extra down to better use. Sure, there are a few instances where there's no other choice but to punt, but South Carolina should consider going for it in every other case.

Why? For the purposes of offensive rhythm. The Gamecock offense had no issues sustaining drives earlier this season, but is treading water of late. The offense proved at Missouri how dangerous it can be when it gets to fourth-down mode, and the risk of giving up the ball in South Carolina territory could be worth the offensive momentum that's conserved by converting on fourth down.

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