NO. 11 SOUTH CAROLINA 33, NO. 19 MICHIGAN 28
THE BEST LITTLE BACKUP THAT COULD: The differences here were that Dylan Thompson had no personal bias against Michigan. Playing on the same field and in the same bowl where another former backup, Ryan Brewer, had a career day, Thompson once again entered his name into the annals of USC history. Like Brewer, he knew leading into the bowl game that he was going to play but unlike Brewer, he didn't know how much. He probably never thought that with 3:29 to go and USC trailing by a point, that he'd ever be called upon, especially when Connor Shaw started the game-winning drive with five passes to get the Gamecocks in position at Michigan's 43-yard-line. But Shaw had come up gimpy when he escaped a sack, and Thompson was needed, so Thompson had his chinstrap buckled and was right there when Steve Spurrier turned around to signal him in. In he came, and five plays later, he saw Bruce Ellington streaking downfield. He lofted one of the prettiest passes you'll see into Ellington's waiting arms, and Ellington did the rest as the Gamecocks completed a stunning Outback Bowl. After beating Clemson on its home field, then throwing the game-winner in a bowl, there's no telling what Thompson will do for an encore. He could run for governor - and win by a landslide - at this rate. His problem is, he's too honest for politics, so he can just stick to football.
J. DE-CLEATER: When the first thing people say about the victim of a hit is, "Well, at least the dude lived," then somebody got the ever-loving snot popped out of him. Such is the fate of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith, who is doomed to go through the rest of his career and most likely life as the guy on the end of a brutal tackle. This may finally be something to rival the other most memorable hit of my lifetime, when Bo Jackson trucked The Boz on national TV. Steve Spurrier asked me earlier in the week to ask some Michigan offensive linemen if they thought they could block Jadeveon Clowney one-on-one because he wanted to hear their answers. He figured maybe one of them would mouth off and he could show it to Clowney to get him mad. "He plays better when he's mad," Spurrier quipped. No O-lineman was foolish enough to say anything like that, but on Tuesday, when a disgustingly bad call went against the Gamecocks (more on that later), it's like the steam whistle went off in Clowney's head. He lined up, switched his gap and was between the tackles so fast that the two guys felt nothing but a gale-force wind. Smith barely got his hands on the ball before Clowney launched his shoulder into his chest, sending his helmet into space and knocking Smith damn near into orbit. Smith triggered an audience-wide "OOOOOOHHHH!" as he hit the deck so hard that his fillings rattled, something that may still be happening as he makes his way back to Ann Arbor. Then, instead of Clowney getting up and Swearinger-ing the hit, he saw that the ball was loose, so he reached out a ham-size paw and plucked it neatly off the ground, rising to his feet as he tried to score on the play. The Heisman Trophy campaign starts now, and I don't think it's a stretch to think that Clowney will go into 2013 as the front-runner for the award.
COMEBACK COCKS: Spurrier never had to perform many last-minute drives at Florida, since he was usually ahead by so many points at the end of a game, but everyone knew that if the situation arose, he'd be able to handle it. That offense was just too prolific to think that it couldn't get a touchdown if need be. At USC, the offense has never approached that point, and any potential comebacks usually had a dropped pass here or a penalty there to prevent it. Not anymore. Although Tuesday's game-winning drive was slow to develop - I don't think I was the only one who was thinking, "Not sure why 20 seconds are being burned off the clock with two timeouts on the board" - it worked. Seriously doubt it was drawn up that way, with Thompson having to come in, but it still worked. It's that kind of play, especially performed by a kid that will be back next year, that can inspire a team through an entire offseason. It leaves them all aching for more, and to do it again.
WIDE RE-SMURF-ERS: File this under sentences I never thought I'd write - Michigan was knocked back with its inability to cover Damiere Byrd, Nick Jones and Ellington. Ellington, perhaps, could give a defense fits, but although Jones had started to come around against Clemson, he and Byrd weren't exactly the guys to count on when needing a big pass play. Yet, Shaw threw deep for Byrd on the game's third play (thanks to a pass-protecting block from Kenny Miles) and Byrd gathered it in, then fell into the end zone. Jones took Thompson's third pass of the game, on third-and-9, in stride for 70 yards. Ellington caught the game-winner among his two catches for 36 yards. Spurrier knew that the Michigan defense was hurting without two starting cornerbacks, and went at it. The Wolverines couldn't handle the assault.
NO. 1: Ace Sanders certainly showed his home state what his home-state schools missed out on. Three touchdowns, including a stutter-stepped sprint of a punt return, and being in position for every big catch. Of the eight catches on USC's final drive, Sanders had three, and ended with nine for the game. It was the kind of performance that every big-game receiver covets, or perhaps the kind of performance that anyone who calls himself "Ace" always knows that he can get.
END LIKE THE BEGINNING: Devin Taylor hasn't had a great year numbers-wise, but he's still managed to make an impact. His long arm tipped Devin Gardner's last-second Hail Mary attempt into the air, preventing the possibility of a last-second sweat job, and ended the game. It brought to mind the first play of Taylor's career - pressed into service as a true freshman on the road, Taylor's first collegiate stat was to force a fumble against NC State. Well done.
SO LONG: Last season, when USC finished an 11-2 season, the future was very bright despite the loss of Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, Travian Robertson, Antonio Allen, Alshon Jeffery and C.C. Whitlock. The future is still bright, but any success USC has in 2013 is going to come from a lot of new faces. The Gamecocks aren't just losing 29 seniors, they're losing several players who started or played all four years and were around for the building. The sadness of that and the questions on who to replace them can wait - for now, a fond farewell to Reginald Bowens, Justice Cunningham, DeVonte Holloman, Walker Inabinet, Damario Jeffery, Byron Jerideau, T.J. Johnson, Miles, Quin Smith, Seth Strickland, D.J. Swearinger, Taylor, Shaq Wilson and Adam Yates. You will all be missed.
WHAT A GLORIOUS FEELING: Remember just a dozen years ago, when USC was 1-21? Me neither. The past three years has seemed like a dream. The Gamecocks were always one of those programs rarely meant to be good and never great, but they have won 11 games in back-to-back seasons. They did much of it without players expected to take them there, too, making it all the more amazing. USC's fans have waited for this day, and it is here. Don't forget to tingle, you guys.
CRINGING FINALE: Yates before the game was his usual happy-go-lucky self, saying that he had no idea what the new "Batman" warm-up shirts were all about but immediately cutting the sleeves off his and putting on his usual two sweatbands per arm, since he had an awful tan line the last time he was at the Outback Bowl. If only his last game had reflected his cheerful demeanor. Yates missed one field goal right and had his other one blocked, and he definitely looked relieved afterward when asked how glad he was that he wasn't summoned to kick the game-winner. And after booting two kickoffs nearly out of the end zone, Yates lined one to the corner and watched it roll out-of-bounds, USC's seventh of the season, which tied for the national lead. He had a pretty solid year, considering, but the finale was forgetful.
REALLY?: Pushing and shoving are part of the game, but Victor Hampton got a personal foul for taunting - on a stuffed run, when he was 40 yards downfield guarding the receiver. That gave Michigan 15 yards and led to a score. Miles fumbled on a handoff, and that led to more points. Trying to run the two-minute drill before halftime, USC had an incomplete pass, two Shaw runs, then a sack of Shaw, followed by a sack of Thompson. Pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty bad.
IT WORKED, ALL RIGHT: USC's defensive plan to start was good. Don't pass-rush Gardner, because he could run right around, and force him to throw - he definitely didn't hesitate to let it go, and his passing was, um, well, better suited to backyard ball. But Michigan's offense, due to USC's offense either going three-and-out or scoring on two or three plays, came to life and wore USC's defense down. The missed tackles were startling, and the straight falling-down of USC's secondary was even more so (I don't mean that in a figurative sense, I mean guys like Akeem Auguste were falling on their faces on pass coverage).
SOMEHOW GOT THROUGH THE YEAR: Even with Marcus Lattimore, USC couldn't open holes to run. It was incredible that the line, finally blessed with the talent and depth that it hadn't had in years (decades?), couldn't function. The run game was nearly non-existent against Michigan until Shaw woke everybody up with a designed run off a fake handoff, but Miles ended with one lousy yard, Mike Davis did not carry the ball and Shon Carson was only used as a slot receiver (and that was two catches for 1 yard). Look, Shawn Elliott is doing a fantastic job here, but I'm bumfuzzled why the zone-read suddenly didn't look lethal, or even ordinary, for the entire season. The line only loses Johnson for next year, meaning USC should be feeling good - but a rushing offense that finished 10th in the SEC, and that was trying to feature the run, can't be causing many positive feelings.
BIG LEAST: Any wonder that the Big East is considered a disgrace to the game? The way those officials worked it, that wasn't a surprise. First, every person in that stadium heard Swearinger say, "Heads," on the coin flip, except the head referee. He asked Swearinger to scream it on the second try. There was a phantom personal foul on Sanders when he was getting untangled from the bleachers after a touchdown. Then there was the worst one, signaling a first down when the ball was clearly two chain links from touching the pole (did the shadow count?). That one sent Spurrier into a deserved fit, and a challenge, which was somehow still upheld. If I was the Big East, I wouldn't want to comment either - I'm reminded of a classic line: "I'm not allowed to say anything about how awful the officiating is."