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. 23 FLORIDA STATE 26, NO. 19 SOUTH CAROLINA 17
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Stephen Garcia began the game badly, recovered late and finished with a decent showing. His numbers -- outside the three interceptions -- weren't bad, but those three interceptions put USC in a six-point hole it never got out of. I'll completely give him a break on the second. D.L. Moore bobbled it, although the pass was a bit behind, but I always subscribe to the theory of "if you're close enough to touch it, you're close enough to grab it." That bobble was picked off and raced the other way. The other two were plain bad throws, and it represented the trap Garcia has fallen into. One bad play becomes several, and without Marcus Lattimore to depend on, Garcia became panicky and rushed. Throwing off his back foot, while on the run, trying to hit a 5-foot-7 wide receiver 40 yards downfield? Somehow throwing to the wrong side of Alshon Jeffery when he had a step to the left corner of the end zone? Those were just huge, huge could-have-been plays that turned out as interceptions. I give Garcia a lot of credit for avoiding several more sacks than the two Florida State got, and more credit for leading USC on two scoring drives in the third quarter to get the game within two points, but man, he still got locked into some bad decisions. He's constantly locked onto Jeffery and not getting the ball to his other open men ... but that's a topic for another day. On Friday, Garcia was bad early, good late and never great.
Lattimore was hardly in the game to make a difference, yet through two-and-a-half quarters, was still the Gamecocks' leading receiver. He was knocked out and the rushing game could have completely disappeared, but didn't. Why? Because of Brian Maddox, playing his last game, and Kenny Miles, who refused to let a frustrating season derail him. Maddox rushed for 53 yards and a touchdown, bulldozing several Seminoles through the middle, and Miles showed why he was USC's leading tailback in 2009 with 70 yards on 10 carries. Maddox has always been there, through this season and his career, but for Miles, who fumbled the last time he touched the ball and was an afterthought for the season, was simply wonderful. I had the "Ryan Brewer" tag out and ready to apply if the Gamecocks won, but didn't get to use it. Still, Miles' performance and Lattimore's injury may have shown him that there is a spot for him at USC next year. He has repeatedly said he has never thought of transferring, but that was during the season. Perhaps this will cement that decision now that the option is there, but doesn't have to be taken. As for the group grade, obviously not the best game, but the best player wasn't on the field.
Jeffery had another big day, with nine catches for 130 yards, and shucked some bad body language early when Garcia was clearly off his game. The pass where he leaped behind the cornerback to snatch an interception away was vintage Jeffery, and almost erased that fumble that he had. The fumble was a great play by FSU's Greg Reid, who had his hand on the ball even as Jeffery was coming down with it, so it's hard to fault Jeffery. But, he had both hands on it, and that's not the first time he's had to battle defenders for the ball. Never fumbled before. The ball was spread around, but outside of Lattimore's three catches, no one else got more than two. A lot of that is Garcia's sticking to Jeffery and barely looking at anyone else, but when the ball was thrown, the receivers usually got it (other than Moore's bobble). Tori Gurley had a nice sideline catch-and-run after Garcia flipped him the ball on a scramble and Ace Sanders showed that he can catch and throw touchdowns. A solid effort from all, although the fumble and the bobble take the grade down.
Neither showed up in the stat sheets. Patrick DiMarco played mostly fullback because he had to block much more for Maddox and Miles than he would for Lattimore, and Justice Cunningham mostly stayed home at the end of the line to help out on FSU's pass-rush. DiMarco is always a credit to whatever rushing yards the team can get and Cunningham can be considered a part of the line when he doesn't get his hands on the ball, so DiMarco is lumped in with the running backs and Cunningham is joined with the line. Average day, average grade for the position.
The Seminoles had Garcia scrambling, but the line only gave up two sacks and opened holes for 151 rushing yards, despite being without Lattimore. Its pass-blocking left a little to be desired, since Garcia was often rushed trying to throw, and I remember one play where Garcia was swarmed and Jarriel King was actually behind the quarterback, wrapping him up and trying to push him forward (in effect, helping complete the sack). Not a great day for the line, which clearly struggled, but then again, the entire offense struggles when Lattimore is not in the game. That's a question for the ages -- although super-talented, why is the offense so night and day when it comes to Lattimore? It's not like the rest of them don't deserve to be on the field. Anyway, the line was OK, not great but not terrible. Having Garrett Chisolm available, I think, would have made a difference on at least three of those incomplete passes (rush came from the left side), and maybe an interception.
The line started off well, holding Florida State's runners to minimal gains, but began to recede as the game went on. Much of that was when Christian Ponder left the game with a concussion, the line had to adjust to E.J. Manuel, much more of a threat to keep it himself and run the ball. The defensive linemen simply didn't know if they could bring him down on a blitz, since he may just run the other way. Travian Robertson had five tackles and Cliff Matthews played a fine final game, getting six tackles, two for loss and a sack. Devin Taylor had seven tackles and Melvin Ingram had a sack. That being said, somebody has to answer for 218 rushing yards. The Seminoles' offensive line wore down USC's defensive front, and it showed as the game went on. Chris Thompson began picking up more and more of his 147 yards after first contact and the line couldn't get much pressure on him.
Quin Smith tied for the team lead with eight tackles and played a good game, although he had a penalty or two that cost him a top grade. Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter kept doing what they have all season, which is give great effort, even if it doesn't result in many tackles. I thought Dickerson played a terrific game, picking up Thompson several times as he got through the line and at least delaying him long enough for a defensive back to come over and finish the tackle. It's been a position of need all season, with Shaq Wilson being out, and Dickerson and Straughter had admirable seasons. Their final game was a reflection of that.
To only hold a team to 90 passing yards, its best result of the season, was a nice statistic for this group, especially after the last game it played in the Georgia Dome. But there were still a couple of busted plays that loomed so, so large afterward. One, C.C. Whitlock dropped an interception at the goal line that was right in his hands (and had another one later on that could have been a pick-six, but it would have been a stretch for him to get the ball in the first place). The first drop was similar to Akeem Auguste's in the Papajohns.com Bowl -- it would have switched momentum. On the very next play after Whitlock's, Thompson ran for a touchdown and it was 13-0. The next play was on the final touchdown, when Auguste turned to race with Taiwan Easterling, slipped and was a step behind as Easterling caught the back-breaking touchdown. The man has had some bad luck in that corner of that end zone. On the plus side, Stephon Gilmore played very well, collecting eight tackles and going after an interception that he could easily have given up on, since it was well out of the receiver's grasp. Instead, he kept going, hauled it in and nearly put himself in the end zone before wheeling and returning it (that drive became a touchdown). DeVonte Holloman and Auguste also each had eight tackles, and as a whole, the group played very well, unchartably better than the last game (of course, not facing a passing quarterback was a factor). Those two plays, though ...
Steve Spurrier mentioned it three times in his post-game press conference -- "You can't win big games playing special teams the way we do," was one of those. Spencer Lanning made a crucial 40-yard field goal before halftime that got USC on the board, and punted twice for 87 yards, although Spurrier mentioned he had gotten "irritated" with Lanning for booming them down the middle when he asked for kicks to the sideline. Those yielded big returns, two for 53 yards, and added to three kickoff returns for 62 yards, gave the Seminoles great field position almost every time (others were set up by the turnovers). Another zero from USC's return game. Spurrier said it wasn't a coaching problem, it was giving special teams better athletes to work with; whatever it is, USC gets nothing -- ever -- from its return game. The Gamecocks routinely complete 80- and 90-yard drives, which is good, but how beneficial would it be to put someone back there that would at least be counted on to have one return per season? By the time September rolls around, USC will be going on 11 years without a kickoff return for a touchdown. That is excruciatingly unbelievable.
I don't really know how to judge it. Spurrier sat down with Lattimore before the game and picked out FSU formations on film that would let Lattimore do his thing. Added to the usual Jeffery highlights, the Gamecocks felt confident with their packages. Lattimore goes out, it's forcing the square pegs of Maddox and Miles into a round hole, although the two didn't play badly. Perfect example -- Maddox missed a sideline streak pass where he had daylight toward the end zone, the same play that Lattimore had turned into a 53-yard gain on the first drive. The pass was a little out in front, but it's also asking a fullback runner to turn into a 4.4-speed stallion when he's used to catching a 5-yard slant. Spurrier went all-out with his playbook, never trying to stubbornly run the Lattimore plays with non-Lattimore players, and went to the back of the book a couple of times. Putting in Gilmore for a few plays at QB? Smart. Sanders pass to Garcia? Genius. Defensively, the plan was fine, the execution not. Ellis Johnson can't be held responsible for not wrapping up on a tackle, or trying to hard-hit a player instead of wrapping up. I can promise you he doesn't teach that, but he knows as well as anybody that when the offense keeps giving up the ball, the natural instinct is to try and lay somebody out on defense so you can get the ball back. Lattimore's absence led to Garcia's shakiness led to four turnovers after Lattimore's initial fumble led to a 13-0 FSU advantage. I thought the coaches did a fine job of not giving up or letting the team give up, but it was still a loss.
OVERALL GRADE: C
(Season report card coming soon)
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