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August 30, 2014

The good, bad and unknown: Texas A&M



On Saturday morning, Texas A&M's 52-28 shellacking of South Carolina remains difficult to comprehend. Yet here are some good and bad takeaways from the game, as well as some questions it left unanswered.

The Good.

NICK JONES. Any discussion of South Carolina's positive takeaways from Thursday night has to start - and probably should end - with redshirt senior receiver Nick Jones. Fortunately, Gamecock Central already has a story on his performance here.

TAKING THE HIT. There's something to be said about a quarterback who knows a crunching blow is coming, but stands in the pocket to deliver the pass anyway. Making that choice takes guts.

Connor Shaw did it for 2 1/2 years as the starter - though he preferred rolling out of the pocket to taking licks inside of it - and he paid for it, spending most of his junior season banged up with various injuries. And redshirt senior quarterback Dylan Thompson did it Thursday night when he hung around in the pocket just long enough to deliver a 69-yard touchdown pass to Nick Jones - and too long to avoid getting blasted right after releasing the ball.

Of course, Thompson is no stranger to such acts, having suffered a huge hit just before launching the game-winning touchdown pass in the 2013 Outback Bowl.

CAREER NIGHT. Sophomore receiver Pharoh Cooper set new single-game career highs with three catches for 58 yards and one touchdown. Cooper caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown in all of last season combined.

TYLER HULL. Hull's propensity for punts of less than 40 yards hasn't made him popular, but he went a long way Thursday night toward putting the 2012 and 2013 seasons - when the Gamecocks ranked last in the SEC in punting - behind him. Hull punted four times for an average of 44 yards. Unfortunately for Hull, Texas A&M punter Drew Kaser still managed to outshine him, punting twice for a 48-yard average.

TEXAS A&M. Give the Aggies credit; USC's players and coaches did after the game. The Aggies earned it. Head coach Kevin Sumlin had his team ready to play, and it executed his gameplan almost flawlessly.

"It was obvious the odds-makers don't know what they're talking about," head coach Steve Spurrier said after the game. "That team was so much better than us it wasn't funny. They outcoached us, outplayed us. They were better prepared, and they knew what they were doing."

The Aggies ran 99 plays, gained 680 total yards, dominated the battle of possession and won by 24 in a stadium where the Gamecocks hadn't lost in 18 games. That doesn't happen by accident. No. 6 Clemson didn't do it last November, and neither did No. 5 Georgia in 2012.

No team had scored even 40 points - much less 50 - against USC in Williams-Brice since 2007, when No. 17 Florida walloped the Gamecocks 51-31. USC fans have every right to be upset about Thursday night's outcome, but this game was as much a victory for the Aggies as it was a collapse on the part of the Gamecocks.

WILDCAT. USC didn't line up much in the Wildcat formation Thursday night, but when it did, things seemed to work. Sophomore Pharoh Cooper, the team's Wildcat quarterback, handed off twice to receiver Damiere Byrd for a combined 14 yards.

Those aren't jaw-dropping numbers, but the Wildcat sweep plays worked at times when the Gamecocks looked shaky offensively. More on that later.

BIG-PLAY POTENTIAL. It's still there in abundance, even if the consistency isn't yet. Thompson connected on passes of 69, 46, 29, 27 and 24 yards - among others - en route to averaging 18.3 yards per completion.

POSTGAME DEMEANOR. A stomping like the one USC experienced Thursday night is never enjoyable. But the pain and embarrassment it brought - evident in the words and body language of USC's players in postgame interviews - can serve as motivation in the long run. Sometimes it takes that type of kick to the ribs to get a team moving to where it needs to be.


The Bad.

THE DEFENSE. It was difficult to see that coming. USC's defense had one of its worst performances in program history against the Aggies, allowing a sophomore quarterback to pass for more than 500 yards in his first career start.

"I didn't have the guys ready to play like I thought I did," said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. "In the end, we have to take responsibility for our players, as coaches. It's our fault that we didn't have them ready to play."

The Gamecocks couldn't tackle, couldn't cover and - probably most troubling - couldn't get pressure on Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill, who looked cool inside and out of the pocket as he completed 44 of his 60 passes for 511 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

USC's top three tacklers - Chris Moody, Brison Williams and Chaz Elder - from Thursday night are all defensive backs, more evidence of just how often the Aggies were able to get to the second level of the Gamecocks' defense.

RUSHING GAME. USC could get nothing going on the ground. Take away Byrd's two sweep runs for 14 yards, and the Gamecocks averaged just 2.65 yards per carry (20 rushes for 53 yards). You simply can't win like that, especially when the opposing team's offense is scoring almost at will.

Perhaps redshirt freshman tailback David Williams - who didn't play Thursday night - could have provided a spark on the ground, though there's no guarantee he would have been ready for that game or that he could have added much that Brandon Wilds (nine rushes for 45 yards) wasn't already supplying.

UPHILL TREK TO ATLANTA. You can't clinch an SEC East title and a trip to the SEC Championship Game in August or September, but you can ensure that you won't be attending. The Gamecocks are nowhere near out of the race, having lost just one game. The past three SEC Eastern Division champions also lost one game. But they lost just one, so the Gamecocks probably have little room for error from here.

THOMPSON'S FIRST NIGHT AS THE FULL-TIME STARTER. A lot of people will blame redshirt senior quarterback Dylan Thompson for much of what happened Thursday night. And that's fine.

But taking a step back, Thompson's game wasn't quite as bad as it might have seemed at the time. He passed for 366 yards and a career-high four touchdowns, numbers that would have been considered phenomenal had the defense made an occasional tackle or forced a turnover at some point.

Still, he wasn't nearly as sharp as the Gamecocks needed him to be Thursday night - unfairly, it's worth noting. Painted into a corner by the defense's poor play, Thompson made his share of poor decisions as he tried to bring USC back. The offensive line faltered at times in front of him, and his receivers often couldn't get open, leaving him to force throws into coverage. He could have been more accurate as well. It all combined to make for a sour start to his final season at USC.


The Unknown.

IS THE ECU GAME STILL A GIMME? East Carolina, USC's opponent next Saturday, runs a similar offense to Texas A&M, though the Pirates' offensive weapons aren't nearly as talented. Still, it raises the question: Is the upcoming game a sure thing for the Gamecocks? A second consecutive loss at home - this time to an American Conference opponent - is highly improbable. But, as we've seen, stranger things have happened.

The Pirates ranked 11th in the nation in passing offense last season, and will look to air it out in Williams-Brice next week. Can the secondary adjust?

WHERE WAS WESLEY GREEN? Freshman cornerback Wesley Green did not dress with the team Thursday night, which could indicate that a redshirt could be in store for the four-star prospect from Lithonia, Georgia. Looking back, it seems the Gamecocks could have made better use of Green. Maybe against ECU, they will.

WHERE WAS SHAQ ROLAND? The talented junior receiver caught one first-quarter pass for two yards and then disappeared until Thompson was picked off trying to feed him a deep ball through double-coverage. He didn't catch another pass.

IS THE 3-4 DEFENSE AROUND FOR MUCH LONGER? The Gamecocks started the game mostly in the 3-4 defense, and Texas A&M marched down the field for a touchdown on its first possession. The rest of the game was much of the same. The 3-4 defense may not be to blame at all; USC played poorly in every defensive set Thursday night. But it will be interesting to see how long the Gamecocks continue to line up in the 3-4 if the defense doesn't improve.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW? The season doesn't go to waste because of one loss in August. There are at least 11 games to play. The SEC Eastern Division title is still within reach, but only if USC picks itself off the mat and works to make sure Thursday night never happens again. Whether the Gamecocks can do that, though, remains to be seen.

GamecockCentral.com Gameday Guide


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