We 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. 12 SOUTH CAROLINA 56, EAST CAROLINA 37
On the technical side of the equation, neither quarterback was great in the passing game. Ten completions? Steve Spurrier hasn't been involved in a game with only 10 completions since Pop Warner ball. Early, it wasn't entirely Connor Shaw's fault - Jason Barnes in particular let two passes drop right through his hands. Later, when Stephen Garcia took over, deep passes were usually 3 yards over the receiver and the completions were of the "Throw it high, let Alshon Jeffery jump for it" variety. Both quarterbacks showed very good savvy with their legs, rushing for a combined 82 yards and only taking one sack between them. Obviously, the difference is in the intangibles - for whatever reason, the Gamecocks played miles better with Garcia in the game than Shaw. Each factors into the grade, but Garcia's sparkplug of a night pushes the grade into a very good mark.
After a first-quarter fumble and a heart-to-heart (complete with nasty language, I'm sure), Marcus Lattimore became Marcus Lattimore again. His two second-half touchdowns paced the Gamecocks' come-from-behind win and earned him his fifth 100-yard game. After that fumble, it was the Lattimore of old, refusing to go down and covering the ball when the pressure came in. He was so effective and the game was so close until the end that the others didn't get much action, but Bruce Ellington showed very good athleticism in the Wildcat package. Even without Ellington, Lattimore was vintage Lattimore.
With only 10 completions, kind of hard to judge as a group. Barnes did himself no favors by dropping two catchable balls. Jeffery did well, leaping over the coverage to catch three of his five passes and doing very well on a sideline curl from Garcia to him to set up a touchdown. Ace Sanders had a pretty little box-out to catch a touchdown. Three of the 10 were to Lattimore and the deep pass was pretty much abandoned after no quarterback could hook up more than 30 yards downfield. Didn't seem like the receiver's fault, though, so it's hard to dock them a grade.
Had a long talk with a trusted friend about this and we both came to the same conclusion. The tight end/fullback/H-back role that Patrick DiMarco filled so well last year was an afterthought against East Carolina. Whether that was by design (saving for Georgia?) or necessity is the question. From what I saw, Justice Cunningham did his usual reliable job blocking (although he did have one bad penalty) and when Dalton Wilson switched places with him on special packages, he did as well. Neither had a pass thrown their way. The offense as a whole didn't look very sharp, but that's not the position's fault.
Only one sack, and the quarterbacks plus Lattimore had a fine rushing day, so the O-line by my view did well. The depth was never really challenged as East Carolina didn't put on a tremendous pass-rush, and the starters seemed to do well, after the requisite false-start penalty (A.J. Cann). There were plenty of shotgun snaps, and T.J. Johnson didn't high-snap after having some issues in fall camp, so that was a positive. The heat was mostly kept off the QBs, with Garcia showing patience in letting a play develop and Shaw doing it early on, then reverting to his familiar foible of taking a step and committing to the run as the pocket collapsed. A very strong effort of doing what it was supposed to do.
The strength of the defense, I thought the line did an excellent job for what it could do. As Ellis Johnson said, the Pirates' offense was so gimmicky that it wasn't the best plan to rush the quarterback on each play, since he could simply throw over the line and have a good chance of succeeding. The Gamecocks didn't get a sack, although there were a few that were close, and did get three tackles for loss, 1.5 of those by Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney was a constant presence in the backfield and nearly had an interception, while Travian Robertson flat muscled running back Reggie Bullock a couple of times, on one occasion simply reaching behind him as Bullock passed, grabbing a pad and flipping him backward. Melvin Ingram charged into position during the one time that Dominique Davis panicked and got USC's lone interception. A very solid effort from what is expected to be the most dominant part of the defense.
Since the Pirates didn't run too much (85 total yards on the ground), the linebackers were mostly helping with containment duties on the myriad passing routes. They did well. Reginald Bowens, finally healthy, got six tackles and a fumble recovery while Rodney Paulk and Quin Smith had five stops each. Shaq Wilson recovered a fumble. Then there was spur Antonio Allen, who plays the hybrid position but is more suited in the linebacker's space than in the defensive back's (which is why he's included in this group). Quite frankly, Allen played superior. Sixteen tackles? Two fumbles forced AND recovered? A 25-yard touchdown where he wrestled the ball away from East Carolina's fullback and sprinted to the end zone? That's SportsCenter Express right there.
Because the Pirates run such a complex scheme and Dominique Davis did such a fine job of throwing the ball away when he was under pressure (except when Ingram took advantage of his only mistake), the defensive backs knew they wouldn't get much action out of their hands. What they had to do was man up and contain - if the guy caught it in front, fine, but make sure he doesn't get any yards-after-catch. The result was varied. C.C. Whitlock played very well, only recording four tackles but getting to his man and holding him up many times. D.J. Swearinger had five tackles and wasn't burned but once. Stephon Gilmore … ah, Stephon Gilmore. He had 10 tackles and a pass break-up, but there were two jump-balls, each to Lance Lewis, that Gilmore was out-jumped for. On the second, Gilmore saw it all the way, tracked it down, lost Lewis inside and saw Lewis catch it as each went up at the same time. Again, he played pretty decently, but his mistakes were big mistakes.
Jay Wooten took over the main duties and had nine kickoffs, three which ended as touchbacks, when he only had five all of last year. Joey Scribner-Howard had one 13-yard punt shank to the side, but was otherwise OK, at least directionally. Bruce Ellington brought a jolt of excitement to the kickoff return game, although his biggest jaunt of the night was called back for an illegal block by Kadetrix Marcus. And then there was Sanders' 68-yard punt return for a touchdown, which was set up by a maybe-block in the back but wasn't called. He stepped into that end zone and the Gamecocks' coaches celebrated like they'd just won the Super Bowl. That would normally be enough to push it into a top mark, but Gilmore and Kenny Miles each fumbled a kick return, giving the Pirates excellent field position after USC had started to gain momentum. Can't have that.
Defensively, I could understand Johnson's frustration. Can't sack Davis, when he estimated the Gamecocks had him in position to be sacked 10 times. Can't rush him too much because he'll throw over you. The defense only gave up that one 80-yard drive, but 17 of the other points were because of the fumbles giving ECU good field position. I thought he did a fine job for what he could do, blitzing with his front four and sometimes Allen and playing containment with his other guys. Offensively, the decision to start Shaw has been roundly debated and we know how it turned out. Aside from that, Spurrier's offensive game-planning was pretty good early although the execution was rotten. The Gamecocks' couldn't connect on a deep ball. Shaw began to commit too early to the run, when Lattimore had just fumbled and there was a bit of hesitation to go back to him right away. The trick double-pass at the end of the half, when Sanders launched a deep pass - why run that play there, when Garcia had the stronger arm and a better chance to make something happen? But Spurrier also used the Wildcat to good use, let Garcia audible a few plays and didn't even have to break out the "DiMarco Package." Passing game wasn't working too well, so he didn't try to stubbornly make it work. He used Lattimore when he should have. Neither unit played outstanding, but each did enough.
OVERALL GRADE: A-
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