In a new feature at GamecockCentral.com, we'll break down every aspect of South Carolina's last game and assign a grade. Go to the head of the class if the grades you assigned the Gamecocks match ours. You've heard the rest, now hear the best.
NO. 17 AUBURN 35, NO. 12 SOUTH CAROLINA 27
Each did good things and each did bad things. Stephen Garcia was having potentially the best game of his career until he fumbled twice in the fourth quarter, and Connor Shaw moved the team downfield, seeming unafraid in a clutch situation in one of the country's loudest stadiums, until he threw two red-zone interceptions. Garcia, through the first three quarters, did a wonderful job at finding his men and putting the necessary touch on the ball -- his first touchdown strike to Alshon Jeffery was a throw that not many USC quarterbacks have ever made. He was also getting rid of the ball quickly, although he began to slip in that category as the game went on. Unfortunately for Shaw, the two picks surpass the good he did simply because he wasn't in the game long enough to overcome them. The 27 points that Garcia helped score are also equaled by the four combined turnovers.
A bit difficult to judge, because the running game was abandoned early before anyone got a chance to stand out. Marcus Lattimore had 14 carries for 33 yards and a touchdown, getting hit at the line and swarmed by Auburn's aggressive defense. Brian Maddox showed a new dimension of his game, only rushing twice for 13 yards but drawing praise for a swing pass where he almost hurdled the last man in his way. It seemed to me that the backs were running the same way they usually do, and Lattimore again had some busted tackles, but just not enough. Effort was still fine, production was way down, but again, when the running game is taken off the play chart, a running back can't get a chance to reverse his stats.
I even had a Clemson fan tell without any grudging respect, but instead with straight adoration, that he thought Alshon Jeffery may be the best receiver in the country. I can't disagree. Jeffery gave Auburn fits all night, constantly picking holes in the secondary and getting his hands in the air to catch high passes. He has gotten into a good rhythm with Garcia, Garcia knowing he can throw it high and Jeffery will still come down with it. He caught eight passes for 192 yards, which pushed his season total to 498 yards, the top mark in FBS (and he's third in yards per game). Tori Gurley also played a fine game with four catches for 36 yards and a perfect catch on the Gamecocks' last touchdown -- Garcia hit him in the gut and Gurley didn't try to run, he just turned his back into the defender and simply fell into the end zone. The only complaint I had was not using Ace Sanders more -- he made nothing into an 11-yard gain by reversing and cutting back across the field, then didn't get any other looks. Not enough to take down the top mark.
Patrick DiMarco caught one pass for 11 yards and Justice Cunningham continued his blocking, which is what he takes pride in. Both played well, although since both were mostly used as blockers, both can share some of the offensive line's grade. The line wasn't as effective at pushing defenders out of the way, but since the tight ends were usually clearing the tackles or trying to protect the quarterback, that's hardly their fault. Like the running backs, not much production, but the position this year without Weslye Saunders isn't expected to be lighting up the stat chart.
Like the running backs, the line can't be held solely accountable for the lack of a running game because the running game was called off. I thought the pass-blocking was fine -- Garcia had time to throw and usually got the ball away, although he did take three sacks when he was just swarmed immediately after the snap. The line is playing hurt, mostly going without Hutch Eckerson and Terrence Campbell, while Kyle Nunn injured his foot but returned to the game. It's doing what it can, and had the running game been asked to do more, perhaps it could have gotten a top mark.
Cliff Matthews couldn't give me an answer, and neither could Ellis Johnson. And it's because they meant exactly what they said -- they simply had no clue what Auburn was going to do because they were completely fooled by Cameron Newton. He hid the fakes so well and stuck the ball into a tailback's stomach at the last minute so many times the front four did not know what was going to happen. I saw Matthews watch as Michael Dyer sprinted up the middle and make no move, because he saw Newton still had the ball. But when Newton ran on the exact same path, Matthews didn't react quick enough and Newton was gone. All four members of USC's line will play in the NFL someday, but their highlight tapes surely won't come from this game. Even when they read the play and got their hands on the ball-carrier, they couldn't bring them down on first contact.
The return of Shaq Wilson helped, the leader of the D recovering two fumbles and chipping in seven tackles. Josh Dickerson tied Stephon Gilmore for the team lead with nine tackles. The LBs played well, although they share the blame for missed tackles with the entire defense and the blame for the wide-open middle of the field with the secondary. Good performances, but not good enough.
Look, the middle of the field has been open all year. The pass defense has been getting torched in it for four games, but in the other three, it didn't matter so much because the opponents could never finish drives. Auburn removed that in a hurry. Four of USC's top six tacklers for the game were defensive backs, because the line and the linebackers couldn't slow down the running attack, but they had the same problem of not wrapping up. Every d-back was giving at least 7 yards cushion to a receiver, despite knowing that Newton wouldn't throw downfield and had to live on the screen. They never adjusted. As for Chris Culliver, as a friend of mine said, he should change his number from 17 to 15. Because he's good for at least one 15-yard personal foul per game. That kind of conduct is inexcusable, especially when you're backed into the red zone, and especially especially when you're a senior.
Spencer Lanning continues to bail the Gamecocks out of bad field position, punting for an average of 48 yards and hitting a long of 53. Jay Wooten has taken over kickoff duties and while he's not putting it in the end zone, he's kicking it so high that the coverage team is having no problems getting to the returner. Bryce Sherman and Culliver split time at kick returner, and the results were about what'd you expect -- Sherman will get more burst, but once he's hit, he won't be able to twist free, and Culliver will return the ball to the sideline but won't break one. The biggest mistake was the missed PAT -- from what I've seen, the snap was fine and Seth Strickland bobbled the hold. Not that it ended up hurting the Gamecocks as the final score was settled, but if Jeffery had held onto that last touchdown, USC would have had to go for two instead of going with Lanning to tie the game on a PAT.
Despite the lousy defense and far too many mental blunders, the Gamecocks still had chances to win (or at least tie and go to overtime). But they didn't, and the final score is all that counts. Steve Spurrier trusted in the passing game, and it worked for three quarters. He made a mistake by getting away from the running game, the same as he did in the PapaJohns.com Bowl after the running game had brutalized Clemson. I agreed with the decision to put in Shaw after Garcia had fumbled, so I can't fault him for that. I also can't fault him for Allen not falling on/recovering that fumble that could have turned the game around. Johnson surely won't be remembered for this game, and that's the biggest chunk of the grade. He can't be held responsible for his players missing tackles or covering their reads, but he already took responsibility for a game plan that had USC completely unaware and unable to adjust to Newton.
OVERALL GRADE: D+
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