NO. 17 SOUTH CAROLINA 38, TENNESSEE 35
JD: You guys watch NFL Films? I love 'em. One of my favorites is when the narrator is describing Joe Montana's last drive of Super Bowl XXIII and he says, "Great players aren't great all the time. They're only great when they have to be." Could have been talking about Jadeveon Clowney on Saturday. Going against two Tennessee tackles that looked like they could have won a prize for competitive eating at any rib joint in the country, Clowney couldn't get to Tyler Bray all afternoon. That's no slight on him - everybody knew that Tennessee may not be a good team this year, but the two things it was great at was protecting Bray and having Bray fire passes. He was clinically carving apart USC's secondary and as he led Tennessee downfield, everybody at Williams-Brice Stadium could see the win vanishing quicker than Fredi Gonzalez's name off a candidate list for manager of the year. But then - remember those plays that USC always made last year, just when it needed them? One more time. Clowney made the only play he had to all game, rushing past his man and taking advantage of the running back who decided not to block him. Clowney plowed Bray with a textbook move, bringing his arm down on Bray's arm as he was about to throw and jarring the ball loose. Major kudos as well to Shaq Wilson for recovering that fumble, because as it bounced around loose, I thought Tennessee would get it. The Volunteers actually did get it, but Wilson dove in and ripped it away in the pile (as Steve Spurrier said, the players who want those fumbles the most are the ones that usually get them). The game wasn't quite over, but the game-winning drive most certainly was.
VIC FOR VICTORY: It was an incredibly un-wise and foolish play to attempt. In another word, it was stupid. USC only had a three-point lead and everybody in that stadium knew that Bray was about to fire a long pass. If I'm the defensive back and I know I'm in one-on-one coverage and the safety has already committed to another man, and the pass is thrown to my man, here's what I do - let him go up and catch it, or miss it, but regardless, take him out on the landing. Make the tackle, and avoid the risk of trying to break up or intercept the pass, missing and letting the receiver go for a touchdown. Shoot, I might have just taken the real easy way out - the ball's thrown toward my man and I just immediately tackle him, stand up, point to my number and look at the nearest ref and say, "Yep, pass interference, right here. All me, baby. I did it." Fifteen yards is much better than a score. So Victor Hampton is matched up with Justin Hunter, and Bray bombs deep, and there he is one-on-one, and Hampton does neither of the smart approaches. Nope, he leaps with Hunter and takes the ball away for an interception to seal the game. Well, of course he did.
( WEIRD, AIN'T IT: I was just thinking that it's so similar to last year. Marcus Lattimore gets hurt, USC finds a way to win, a late interception seals that game. And just before the bye week, too. Perhaps it also foreshadows what happens the rest of the year.)
THE KID CAN THROW IT, YOU KNOW: I never thought it was about how well Connor Shaw could pass, it was that his running ability always took the headlines. But once again, USC's running game wasn't doing much, and he and Steve Spurrier knew that Tennessee's defense couldn't cover a leftover Mello-Yello with Saran Wrap, much less a good offense, so they took to the air. Shaw mis-fired on a few deep balls, one of which was dropped by Damiere Byrd, but otherwise looked good. He was 22-of-32 for 356 yards and three touchdowns and an interception (which we'll get to later), and really spread the ball around. Two receivers got over 100 yards, which is about as common around USC as there is great nightlife in Clemson. That's the kind of production USC will need going forward, especially without Lattimore - the zone-read offense may have to be de-scaled to take advantage of power running, and Shaw will have to keep throwing. As long as that underneath route is always there, he'll be fine.
THE BOSS: Damn, Bruce Ellington, I said I was sorry. Why you got to keep rubbing it in my face that yes, you can be a very effective football player just because I wrote you should stick to basketball? Ellington took a routine screen pass and somehow slipped underneath a sideline tackle (I think he actually turned himself into a mosquito for a split second) and was then off to the races for a touchdown. He showed that he can be a lot more than a 7-yard-out, then-run receiver. He showed that he can play with a chip on his shoulder (which I already knew from that *#@&$%^% 2009 state championship game), an even bigger chip because it was the naked emotion of losing Lattimore. Ellington went from openly sobbing on the USC sideline over Lattimore's loss to catching twin 16-yard completions on the next drive, on back-to-back plays. Man, if I was every other coach on campus beside Spurrier and Frank Martin, I'd be begging Ellington to come play my sport.
WAIT, WHAT?: Cue Joe Robinson for a contract extension. A week after giving away the game due to special-teams fumbles, the Gamecocks' units had an excellent game plan. They knew that Cordarrelle Patterson was one of the best returners in the conference, so they took the easy way out - they didn't let him touch the ball. After the first kick was boomed out of the end zone, USC either pooched the kick to the upback, skidded the kick along the ground or kicked it out-of-bounds. I said that was probably the best thing to do last week, and apparently, someone listened (not really). And then Adam Yates drills a had-to-have-it field goal for the winning points after USC ran itself out of a touchdown. Hey, whatever works, right?
AND DON'T FORGET: Tyler Hull picked a great time for the best punt of his career. When USC couldn't get a first down after the Bray fumble, it had to punt and knew that Bray would have around a minute to move downfield and get in field-goal range for the tie. It had to have a strong punt, but it had to turn to Hull, one of the worst by-average punters in the league. Still, Hull boomed a 51-yard punt that hung in the air so long that Kenny Miles was already downfield on the landing - Patterson caught it going backward, tried to turn around and was met by a mouthful of No. 31, no extra charge.
KEEP NOT COVERING HIM: It was just about when Shaw was devolving into another of his hold-the-ball-too-long moments, the ones where everybody agonizingly screams, "Just THROW it!" A penalty and a sack moved a first-and-goal at the 8-yard-line to a third-and-goal at the 26. So Shaw fires over the middle, and (who else?) Busta Anderson, Touchdown-Scorer, hauls it in, bounces out of a hit and stumbles backward into the end zone. One of these days, opponents are actually going to watch film and be like, "You know, we should probably spy on that 81 whenever he comes in."
WHO?: Zach Rogers had 17 catches for 284 yards and two touchdowns all year before Saturday. On Saturday, he had six catches for 107 yards and three touchdowns. There are two ways to look at this - USC was doing such a good job at taking away Patterson (he caught three balls for 26 yards) that Rogers stepped up. But then again, USC was also trying to take away Hunter, who caught eight passes for 90 yards. Rogers was always there and open, making one sick touchdown catch where he managed to drag his foot in-bounds. The game was the secondary's, because the Gamecocks knew they wouldn't get much success with the pass-rush, and the secondary did not play well. The passes that Bray missed were mostly because he throws the ball like he's holding a beehive. That Rogers, the third guy in the receiving rotation, had a career day was evident that USC's secondary hasn't improved a whole lot. That's not good, with pass-happy Arkansas coming to town in two weeks.
OH, CONNOR, CONNOR, CONNOR … : Shaw did some really good things, but for the second time in three weeks, he also royally screwed up. Nursing a three-point lead in the fourth and knowing that Bray was doing whatever he wanted, Shaw, on fourth-and-4, double-clutched and wouldn't throw downfield to give a receiver a chance. Then he rolled left, knew he was about to get hit and threw a wobbly pass way over Anderson's head and it was intercepted. Just a killer play, although unlike the LSU interception, it didn't cost the Gamecocks anything (ultimately). Now, I do have to question why there was an empty backfield on two straight plays on third-and-4, when USC had to get a score to put the game away. But that was just an awful decision. It does trigger at least the thought of if Shaw has enough to get it done when USC needs a crucial score or comeback - but then again, it's only recently that his decision-making has been called into question.
SERIOUSLY?: Tennessee came into the game last in the SEC in rushing defense. Yet USC only got 147 yards on 46 attempts, which was even more disturbing when considering that Lattimore had 28 on one touchdown run. The run-blocking, after nine games, is still not good, and while the Gamecocks will be playing less-stingy defenses, they will also be playing without Lattimore. Now, the zone-read isn't very useful to Miles, a straight-ahead, power runner, but may be good for Mike Davis (and Brandon Wilds, if he has to be used). Still, whatever the scheme and whoever's running, got to get some holes open.
MARCUS: I nearly threw up when I saw it. The first look was when I saw the ball loose but focused my binoculars on Lattimore on the ground, who was holding his knee. I noticed his leg looking like the underside of a spoon and immediately thought, "Oh, Christ." One of those things that, in this profession, I knew I was going to have to keep looking at it, because I wanted to be accurate in what I wrote, and then find out all I could about the aftermath. I just couldn't shake how personally upset I was about him suffering another season-ending injury.
You don't want injuries to happen to anybody, but you especially don't want it to happen to the rare "good kid," the ones who aren't in it for the money they will make at the next level or the adulation they receive for wearing a uniform instead of a T-shirt. It is so horribly unfair for Lattimore to have to suffer this kind of injury, but it happened. I don't think I'm the only one that wishes he could trade his knee in for Lattimore's - what do I need it for? I sit for 14 of every 24 hours.
The condolences from everybody across the nation - big-timers, like LeBron James, Tim Tebow, Les Miles, et al - were stunning. Lattimore is so much respected as a great talent, and a great person. I think we all knew that the first minute he popped on the recruiting radar. I'm not a very religious person, but I said a quick prayer when it happened and I pray daily for Lattimore to get back to full health - not for what he could do for himself, but because he deserves so many good things to happen to him.
Lorenzo Ward said two weeks ago that life is not fair. I know we all realize that now. Marcus Lattimore didn't deserve this happening to him, much less twice in two years. But if anybody can get past it, it's him.
I look forward to watching an NFL game featuring him some day, and admiring how he always flips the ball directly to the referee without celebrating first. I've covered a lot of great kids in nearly 20 years in the business, but Lattimore …
Well, I would have finished this piece sooner, but it's hard to write when your eyes are watering.