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.
SOUTH CAROLINA 41, SOUTHERN MISS 13
Listening to Steve Spurrier throughout the summer, one would think in the pre-game that this would have to be two separate grades, for Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw. Both played, but this was Garcia's show all the way. The redshirt junior threw for 193 yards and rushed for 38, lowering his head on almost all of his carries and scoring two ground touchdowns after colliding with defenders' lids. Shaw also played, and outside of the three sacks he took, played well. The only reason this doesn't get a top mark is for two reasons -- one, Shaw took off a bit too quickly on some of his scrambles, ignoring open receivers; and two, third-stringer Andrew Clifford threw an interception, USC's only turnover. Still, when was the last time a third-string QB got into a USC game?
No single back got more than 60 yards, yet the Gamecocks rushed for 224. Magnificent. Marcus Lattimore spearheaded the assault with 54 yards on 14 carries, showing great toughness near the goal line and scoring two touchdowns. The group got a boost from freshman Ace Sanders' only run of the night, a 53-yard scamper on a reverse, but also turned Kenny Miles loose in the second half for 24 yards on four carries. Lattimore, Shaw and Garcia dominated the individual rushing stats, but the Gamecocks did something very important -- they proved they are not a one-back team and can come at opponents with a variety of runners. The only knock? Not much burst from any of them from the handoff, save for Sanders' trick play.
As proven last year, any time the Gamecocks can get the ball to Alshon Jeffery, they're going to have a chance. The sophomore caught seven balls for 106 yards, turning that lanky frame loose and making folks again shake their heads and exclaim, "You just can't teach that." The QBs also didn't have to depend on Jeffery, throwing the ball to eight other receivers. The wideouts showed a good mix of getting open short and long, and although only D.L. Moore caught a touchdown, the rest were willing to take what they could get. One question -- with all of the good-natured Heisman hype about Lattimore's two touchdowns, how come no one is talking about Jeffery?
In the absence of Weslye Saunders, Justice Cunningham started and fullback Patrick DiMarco played some snaps as well. Neither caught a pass at the position (DiMarco's one grab was out of the backfield) but each helped with a much more important chore -- blocking. The line is going to be facing thin depth all season and to have a tight end out there who can be a sixth man is a massive favor. Not much statistical production, but it's hard to knock somebody for not catching a pass when he's doing his other job so well.
Considering that Rokevious Watkins started and played his first collegiate game and Terrence Campbell plus Jarriel King didn't play, the line played wonderfully. After a rough first few plays (Brian Maddox swarmed on the snap and two straight false starts), the line melded and gave USC the protection it needed. Aided by a much more decisive Garcia, who picked up the blitz and threw it away or took off running, the line mostly kept the heat off its quarterback. Shaw did get sacked three times, but two were when he scrambled and got corralled behind the line of scrimmage. Again, not much push for the running game, but overall a fine job considering the depth.
With three players cleared just before kickoff, coach Brad Lawing had to be breathing a sigh of relief. The strength of USC's defense took the field and played well, after a first series where it sat back and figured out what Southern Miss was going to do. Devin Taylor had another great game, with five tackles and a swatted pass, and backup Aldrick Fordham chipped in three tackles. Perhaps a bit concerning with the lack of a pass-rush, but in the past, the rush mostly came from the linebackers, who are the walking wounded right now. Nothing spectacular from the D-line, but nothing terrible, either.
Considering that Shaq Wilson remains out with a hamstring pull, the LBs did a fine job. Quin Smith and Josh Dickerson started while Rodney Paulk and Tony Straughter also played. Smith led the crew with five tackles while Straughter had a nifty fumble recovery and sprint downfield. The Golden Eagles did pile up the yards, but mostly on screen passes and working the sidelines, but couldn't cross the goal line. A good performance, not great, but they can't be docked too much with one starter out and another gingerly getting his game legs back under him.
Akeem Auguste played a fantastic game, leading the Gamecocks with eight tackles and delivering the hard knocks that have made him an everyday player. DeVonte Holloman was right behind with seven tackles, plus a momentum-changing interception in the first quarter, while Stephon Gilmore had six tackles and spur Damario Jeffery had another six. With a passing attack to neutralize, the Gamecocks' secondary piled up the tackles and looked very good doing it. Most of the damage was done with the game no longer in doubt, but can't give a top mark for a 300-yard-plus passing game by the opposition.
Field goals and punting were thought to be solid, and they were. Spencer Lanning again proved why he's one of the most under-trumpeted players in the SEC. The only real question was kickoffs and kickoff coverage, and each was performed admirably. Joey Scribner-Howard had two touchbacks among his eight kickoffs, which is double the amount USC had all of last year, and the cover team allowed an average of 18 yards per return. Bryce Sherman, in the absence of Chris Culliver, had three returns for an average of 23 yards. Overall, kudos to coordinator Shane Beamer.
Spurrier did a terrific job mixing the run and the pass, with his rushing offense coming in just one yard less than the passing. He also opened up the playbook for a few tricks (Sanders' reverse, Gilmore in the "Wild Cock") that showed the next opponent (Georgia) that it can't plan for one approach next week. He also let Garcia play with more of his instincts instead of strictly sticking to the playbook, and the result was the most comfortable season-opener of his USC tenure. The only time the offense really stalled was the first series and then right before halftime, when a late timeout cost the Gamecocks a chance to get Lanning on the field for a potential field-goal try.
OVERALL GRADE: A
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