Steve Spurrier is pleased quarterback Connor Shaw learned from his mistake.
In the second quarter of last Saturday's 14-12 victory at Mississippi State, Shaw threw a jump pass in the direction of Alshon Jeffery. But the pass was thrown beyond the end zone and fell incomplete. Moments later, Shaw threw a pass too high to Jeffery and it was deflected into the arms of a Mississippi State defender for an interception.
However, when the same situation arose again late in the game, Shaw lobbed a perfect pass to Jeffery, who leaped with outstretched arms and caught the ball above two Mississippi State defenders.
Spurrier sees the contrast as a sign of growth from his sophomore quarterback.
"Connor has only played two games. I really think he can learn from maybe a bad play here and a bad play there," Spurrier said Tuesday. "We were watching tape again this morning with the offensive staff. When he threw the ball out of the ballpark in the second quarter there, the next time he got in that situation, he threw the beautiful jump pass that ended up being a touchdown. Hopefully we can get it up there where Alshon can get his hands on it and make some plays like that."
Shaw is 3-0 as a starter this season and has sensed a jolt of confidence after leading USC to his first SEC road win at Mississippi State.
"Absolutely I feel more confident after a road win like that," Shaw said Tuesday. "I didn't play like I did against Kentucky, but confidence comes in game-time experience. I think I'm developing game-by-game."
Shaw's success in Starkville didn't surprise Spurrier, who has seen the sophomore rise from little-used backup to starting quarterback literally overnight in the wake of Stephen Garcia's permanent dismissal last week.
"Connor has been here. It's his second year after graduating early from high school," Spurrier said. "He actually beat Stephen out in preseason practice. The first quarter at East Carolina didn't work out, but he's a good player. When it was his turn to play, we didn't say, 'Well Connor hasn't played much.' He's proven he can play a little bit. He's played pretty well. We think he can continue improving and continue to get a lot better."
CIRCLE THE WAGONS: In the wake of the loss of Marcus Lattimore, Spurrier has circled the wagons, contending its less about trying to make up for the absence of one of the top running backs in the country as it is simply playing better across the board. In an effort to achieve that, the USC coaches are 'coaching them up' in practice this week.
"We'll regroup, play with what we got. That's all we can do," Spurrier said. "We have plenty of players. We just have to play better. We make too many assignment errors. We're just not as fundamentally sound as I think we should be. We're going to try to coach hard this open date before letting the guys go this weekend and see if we can't look better."
Because Spurrier believes USC hasn't come close to fulfilling their potential, the Gamecocks have focused this week on making individual and team improvement rather than developing the younger players, which has been the modus operandi in the past.
"Most open dates, we run around a little bit and let the young guys play. We've got to coach the older guys this week. They're playing the game," Spurrier said. "See if we can't line up, snap it, hand it off and look like we know what we're doing. We have some coaching to do this week, as well as the rest of the year. We'll do a little bit more the next three days."
Spurrier insisted he isn't talking or thinking about the big picture this week, that USC still controls its own destiny in the SEC East.
"We're not focusing on that. We're focusing on trying to play the game a lot better and playing our assignments a lot better. That's the only thing we really talk about," Spurrier said. "Next week with Tennessee, we'll just talk about trying to beat them. I'm a coach that always believes you worry about yourself a lot more than your opponent. Get your guys ready to play. The final outcome will take care of itself if you can control our own individual performance every play throughout the course of the game."
Spurrier refuses to allow the distractions caused by Lattimore's season-ending knee injury or last week's dismissal of former starting quarterback Stephen Garcia to disrupt his team as they march forward through the second half of the 2011 schedule.
"The distractions, they don't block and tackle. The injury to Marcus is unfortunate. Other than that, our guys should be just playing the game, having fun playing the game. We've had a lot of mental errors throughout the entire team, but we're going to keep trying to correct those. We haven't played to our potential. This is not a great team, by any means. This is a good team that has a chance to be better, but you have to do it on the field."
MARKETT REMAINS THE STARTER: Even though Akeem Auguste will miss the rest of the season with a foot injury that has plagued him since late July, USC secondary coach Lorenzo Ward maintained he is comfortable with the current four-man rotation of Stephon Gilmore, C.C. Whitlock, Marty Markett and Victor Hampton. Whitlock started his first game since Week 2 at Mississippi State when Markett was slowed by a neck injury. However, Ward said Markett remains the starter.
"We feel good about the four young men back there," Ward said. "As long as we can keep two of them healthy, we have a chance to have guys we feel can play. Marty is the starter. He would have started last week, but he didn't practice because he was out with the neck injury. You don't lose your starting job because you get injured. The reason C.C. started is because Marty didn't practice until Thursday. I didn't feel comfortable about letting him start after he didn't practice the entire week. But Marty is the starter."
The Mississippi State game marked the fourth game of Hampton's career after he missed the first three games for academic reasons. He has five tackles and one interception.
"Victor is excited about playing," Ward said. "Having the opportunity to go out and play has totally affected his entire life. And not just in football. He's done things right off the field and as long as he keeps doing that and keeps improving on the field, the sky is the limit for Victor."
BORN TO BE WILDS: Now that Spurrier appears committed to giving freshman RB Brandon Wilds an opportunity to make his first career start, the question becomes this one: is Wilds capable of carrying the ball 20 to 25 times per game? Spurrier think so.
"If we can make some yards, certainly we can hand it off to him 20 or 25 times," Spurrier said. "He's got good size, good quickness and good speed. He's good to go."
Bruce Ellington should see his role in the offense expand, as well, although Spurrier isn't keen about using him at running back. He'll continue to run the Wildcat and catch some passes from his wide receiver spot.
"Bruce Ellington is ready to go. We'll use him more back there," Spurrier said. "He's a natural runner with the ball. He could play some tailback, but we're going to leave him mainly at wide receiver and use him in the shotgun a little bit also."
While Ellington at running back is a possibility, he told reporters on Tuesday that he hasn't played running back since youth league football in Moncks Corner, S.C. As Spurrier explained, playing running back at the SEC level involves more than just carrying the ball.
"It is more involved than just sticking him back there right now. He's not going to be a running back, per se," Spurrier said. "We're not going to ask him to pick up all the blitzing linebackers and that kind of stuff, which is what running backs do nowadays. He'll be there in the Wildcat. We'll have some passes for him, a little bit more than he had last week, and let him get in there and go."
COMEBACK KIDS: One of the most important positives to be taken from the first seven games of the 2011 season is USC's propensity to rally in the fourth quarter. Three times (Georgia, Navy and Mississippi State) USC has trailed in the fourth quarter, yet driven the length of the field to score the game-winning points.
"The offense put a drive together against Georgia and put one together last week, somehow or another," Spurrier said. "It wasn't all passes. A bunch of runs and scramble plays occurred. We have won three games that we've been behind in the fourth quarter. That is encouraging. Hopefully that mindset will stay with us. It hasn't happened a lot around here, but it's happening now. At least our guys believe that we're never out of the game."
THIRD DOWN TROUBLES (AGAIN): Last season USC allowed opponents to convert 40.4 of their third down opportunities, the second-worst figure in the SEC. So, the Gamecocks made it a priority to improve in that category in 2011. After seven games, the third-down conversion percentage of USC's opponents is exactly 40 percent, ninth best in the SEC. Four-tenths of one percent is not the kind of improvement Spurrier was looking for.
"Our defense is playing well, but we're giving up 40 percent on third downs, just like we did last year," Spurrier said. "That's not good. We have to get better on third down defense and get those guys off the field. Fortunately, we've toughened up in the red zone and made some stops. They've missed some long passes."
USC's third-down percentage is actually better against SEC teams (33.8 percent) than non-conference opponents (54.6 percent). Mississippi State was 7-of-16 on third downs last Saturday.
SUCCESS WITH WALK-ONS: Since becoming head coach, Spurrier seen a number of walk-ons earn scholarships by contributing on the field. The latest example is Markett, who is also one of USC's top special teams players. Spurrier pointed out Tuesday that USC's kickoff coverage team has five walk-ons, including Billy Byrne, who made the tackle on the final kickoff last Saturday.
"It's always neat to see new guys with energy and loving to play the game out there," Spurrier said. "Billy Byrne is out there a lot. Our best special teams player, Marty Markett, came as a walk-on. I don't know if a lot of other schools have success with walk-ons, but we certainly do. Maybe we need to evaluate who we give scholarships to a little bit better around here."
OFFENSIVE LINE: Spurrier sees the same thing most USC fans see - the offensive line has struggled to open holes in the running game. Pass protection has been decent with 13 sacks allowed. The absence of Kyle Nunn hurts because USC was forced to replace a fifth-year senior with a redshirt freshman due to the lack of experienced depth.
"We're not as dominant as I wish we were. We're not real dominant at all," Spurrier said. "Our guys are doing OK. We're doing OK up front. We're not a big, powerful type of line that you want to have. Cody Gibson is starting at right tackle and a redshirt freshman. A.J. Cann is a second-year guy. Those are two starters right now."
One thing Spurrier and offensive line coach Shawn Elliott won't do is take the redshirt off freshman Brandon Shell.
"Like Shawn Elliott said, you have to train these guys," Spurrier said. "Hopefully, Brandon Shell has a real productive redshirt year of getting stronger and quicker in the weight room and the running drills. We're hoping Brandon Shell will be ready to anchor that left or right tackle position. That's what you hope to do, bring them in and have a bunch of third, fourth, and fifth-year players playing."
FOURTH DOWN FEVER: USC went for it on fourth down six times in 2010. So far in 2011, they've gambled 18 times on fourth down in seven games, an average of more than two attempts per game. Last Saturday, USC was 3-of-15 on third downs and 3-of-4 on fourth downs, marking one of the few times in Spurrier's career his team has converted as many fourth down chances as third downs.
During one third-quarter drive last weekend, USC went for it twice on fourth down. They were successful the first time on a fourth-and-2 from the SC 48 when Shaw completed a 19-yard pass to Nick Jones, but failed a short time later on fourth-on-2 from the MSU 25 when Lattimore was stuffed for no gain. By foregoing the field goal, USC came up empty. Even Spurrier had a difficult time on Tuesday explaining why USC has been more aggressive on fourth downs in 2011.
"I don't really know," Spurrier said. "We were watching the tape and I said, 'We shouldn't have gone for that one.' Midfield in the third quarter, fourth-and-2 and we made it, fortunately. I should not have gone for that one. The game was tied. I think we were a little frustrated we couldn't make a third-and-1 running the ball, so we threw it out there. The game last week was the first time in my coaching career we've made as many fourth downs as we made third downs. We made three apiece. And we still won, so that's even more amazing."
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