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. 18 SOUTH CAROLINA 29, CLEMSON 7
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He has had better games statistically, but Saturday was one of Stephen Garcia's best career games. Garcia didn't have the luxury of Marcus Lattimore handling the offensive load for him, and knew if the Gamecocks were going to score, he would have to be the one to lead them to it. So, he did. He found his other best weapon, Alshon Jeffery, five times and threw for 227 yards despite only looking at one true wide receiver. There was no need to do anything else as long as Clemson couldn't stop it, so Garcia held onto the ball and didn't try to do too much. The Tigers got zero sacks against him despite rushing him several times, but Garcia either rolled away or threw out-of-bounds, perhaps the best evidence of a fine game. USC was in danger of losing its flow due to a Lattimore-less game, but Garcia wouldn't allow it.
The Tigers had Lattimore bottled from almost the opening kick, save for two nice carries for 16 yards on his first two tries. After that, Lattimore found the going very, very tough. He simply couldn't find the wisp of space he needed to get through and start making his reads, Clemson all over him as soon as the ball was snapped. Brian Maddox and Kenny Miles also found little room to run, although Maddox got 23 yards on five carries. Lattimore carried 23 times but only got 48 yards, posting three negative-yardage totes in a row during the second half (has that ever happened?) The backs played hard, and they were given ample opportunities, but the running game wasn't there on Saturday. But as it turned out, it didn't need to be.
The only receiver who caught a pass was Jeffery, who had five for 141 yards and a touchdown. The rest of Garcia's throws were to Lattimore or the tight ends. Jeffery was magnificent, pulling in those highlight-reel grabs he has gotten used to grabbing, including an arching touchdown, a Favre-esque bullet over the middle and a fade that seemed destined to land in Dabo Swinney's arms. Jeffery, as he often does, was worth an A-double-plus, but honestly, it's hard for me to judge the others when they didn't catch anything. I suppose they did OK pass-blocking, but I wasn't really training my binoculars on anybody without the ball.
It may have taken 12 games, but the tight ends were a major part of the offense against Clemson (not that they were needed that much anyway). Patrick DiMarco caught two passes, including the Gamecocks' first touchdown, while Justice Cunningham hauled in a pair of catches for 33 yards. Cunningham is steadily becoming a wonderful option off the line and Garcia is starting to find him, and as for the pass-blocking, they a) shared in the protection of the quarterback and b), the lack of holes for Lattimore. Definitely their most productive game of the season, even if it wasn't perfect.
It's a hard chore, trying to grade how much of the zero sacks was the line and how much was Garcia eluding trouble. Many of the QB's completions were on rolling out of the pocket, but the fact remains that Garcia never once got put on his back with orange on top of him. The line has some blame for not getting any push on Clemson's aggressive defensive front and opening a hole for Lattimore, but it protected Garcia when it had to.
Jamie Harper was stuffed early and often, only gaining 58 yards on 16 carries and often getting manhandled at the line. A large part of that was the line playing its gaps and hitting him initially, while the linebackers finished the job. Linemen (Cliff Matthews, Travian Robertson and Byron Jerideau) accounted for USC's three sacks while Ladi Ajiboye led the linemen with five tackles. The front four were in Kyle Parker's face and later on Tajh Boyd, never letting up. The Gamecocks knew the Tigers were probably not going to throw downfield, despite the initial touchdown, and played the running game perfectly.
Josh Dickerson, Tony Straughter and Quin Smith were helping out on Harper and Parker all evening, plunging through holes to wrap ball-carriers and contributing to those six tackles for loss. Refreshing to see the unit as a whole admirably carried on without Shaq Wilson and refused to let some bad games derail it.
There was the early touchdown, where D.J. Swearinger never covered DeAndre Hopkins, and then there was the pick-six, where Antonio Allen broke the game open. It results in a very good grade. For the third straight contest, USC's secondary wasn't perfect but it was enough. Stephon Gilmore fell down twice on covering Hopkins, but also had a team-high seven tackles. Swearinger recovered from the early gaffe to knock away a key third-down conversion. Akeem Auguste knocked receivers off their feet and had six stops. The group is building confidence, and three straight wins surely helps it.
Boy, did Spencer Lanning have a great day, even with a blocked PAT and missed field goal, but the coverage team gave up its usual one long return (that didn't end up damaging). Then there was the return game, which had its usual ho-hum stats. One big play was on special teams, when Maddox recovered a high snap on a Clemson punt that became USC's first touchdown, and Lanning notched point after point to keep the Gamecocks ahead. A lot prettier than it has been, but when is the return game going to, you know, return?
Even with Lattimore stood up at the line, Spurrier knew enough to limit the passing game because Clemson wasn't going to be much of an offensive challenge. He realized early that the clock was his biggest enemy and used it, with Lattimore holding the ball as he has all year, albeit with much less yardage. He was obviously taking the game as seriously as he could, keeping the passes limited but still dangerous as long as they went to Jeffery. Ellis Johnson continues to show why he's so highly regarded, posting his third straight shutdown game plan even when the Tigers briefly shook things up by putting Andre Ellington into the game. USC made history in a rivalry win and made sure everybody was feeling on top of the world heading into the biggest game of the season.
730 straight days of bragging about a win over Clemson. Enjoy it, Gamecock nation.
OVERALL GRADE: A
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