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October 10, 2011
Report Card: USC-Kentucky
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. 18 SOUTH CAROLINA 54, KENTUCKY 3
Well, hello there, Connor Shaw. That was a wonderful performance. Keep in mind, Kentucky did have the No. 11 passing defense in the country (although considering it was awful against the run, many teams didn't pass anyway), and Shaw threw for 311 yards, the first SEC quarterback not named Tyler to have a 300-yard game this season. Shaw was in a spot where he could have froze and regressed to the panicky freshman we all saw at times last season, but instead, he stood tall and played confidently. His team needed it, and so did he - that's the kind of game that can really start a career. Say what you want about Kentucky (and the Wildcats are, um, not good), but Shaw had a lot of moxie behind his throws. He mixed short and long, he found all his receivers, he used his check-downs and here's the thing - he was allowed to. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Steve Spurrier to say, "Run it," and ease Shaw into the game. Instead, the Gamecocks came out throwing, passing on their first four downs and on eight of their first nine. Spurrier seemed to be saying, "Got to find out if this is gonna work," and it did. Shaw didn't throw an interception, but tossed four touchdowns, and his backups (Andrew Clifford and Dylan Thompson) also had a touchdown apiece. A quality showing from someone that really needed one, to restore the faith in himself, his team and his fan base. Shaw gets the little extra for playing so confidently, which had been his drawback in the past.
Marcus Lattimore found some relief, in the form of his backups. Bruce Ellington played "Wildcat" quarterback, as did Lattimore, and raced 61 yards for a score, while Brandon Wilds continued to show why he is the No. 1 backup for Lattimore. Lattimore was stood up early, but began to gash Kentucky's line as the trick formations did their job - it wasn't easy, for the second straight week, as the Gamecocks' offensive line continued to get no push and knock itself back with silly penalties. But Lattimore kept going, often sacrificing himself on blocks so Shaw could get free, and took the pitch on a couple of option runs that worked beautifully. He got his fourth 100-yard game of the season, finishing with 102 on 22 carries, and he also caught four passes. The Gamecocks as a whole got 288 rushing yards, with Lattimore the true back who handled most of it - top marks.
Safe to say that this is what most expected coming into this year. Shaw found Alshon Jeffery for a team-high six catches, but didn't just focus on him - 10 guys caught passes on Saturday, with five of them hauling touchdowns. Jeffery led the way with two scores (he loves some Kentucky defense, with six touchdowns against it lifetime) but Nick Jones and D.L. Moore also caught one each. Shaw spread the ball so well that he could have been nicknamed "Butter" (although it would take away from "The Glove"), and that's what was needed from him and from the receiving corps. The Gamecocks had too much talent to be locked in like they were, just on Jeffery and almost nobody else. Ellington caught three balls, Damiere Byrd had one (and dropped a really big one), Ace Sanders got re-involved with five catches for 53 yards. The routes were crisp and finished, the cuts were well-turned, the chemistry from QB to receiver was there. Excellent day.
It's been great to watch the rise of South Carolina's tight ends under Spurrier, after six years of Lou Holtz treating the tight end as if he never knew he could be an eligible receiver. Against Kentucky, each of USC's tight ends did what they could with blocking (which shares a bit of blame with the offensive line) but played fantastically well receiving the ball. Shaw found Justice Cunningham several times, going underneath for five catches, including a touchdown, and Rory Anderson's 46-yard box-in-and-scamper was huge, setting up the Gamecocks' first touchdown and the beginning of 54 unanswered points. Shaw did a great job of finding each of them and for one week, the loss of Patrick DiMarco didn't hurt nearly as bad. Cunningham and Buster doing an excellent job of being the safety valve.
The offense had over 600 yards, but the protection, most of the day, was not there. I realize that Kyle Nunn remains out and Rokevious Watkins is playing out of position (and got a concussion, besides), and I further realize that years of terrible decisions in O-line recruiting still has USC paying debts. Perhaps shoddy protection is to be expected, but it can't be excused. Especially when for the third straight week, false-starts continue to plague USC. The Gamecocks were poor in providing a push for Lattimore and/or protecting Shaw, and Cody Gibson, in his first start, had his doors blown off so many times that he looked like that rusted-out '57 Plymouth in my neighbor's front yard. The defenses are only going to get better, and while Lattimore found room late when he was the "Wildcat" quarterback, USC's line has got to find some kind of way to get the young backups as tough as the veteran starters. Of course, that may be impossible.
Another day, another game of living in the opponents' backfield. While the Gamecocks didn't record a sack and were playing most of the time without Melvin Ingram, they did an excellent job of squashing Kentucky's run and getting to quarterback Morgan Newton. Jadeveon Clowney had three tackles and Kelcy Quarles had two. While there was nothing really spectacular from the unit, there was quite enough. Only reason it's not an "A" is because of the next group.
The Gamecocks were waiting for a contest where their linebackers really stood up and made a difference, and Saturday was it. The line did well to slow down Kentucky's running game or harass Newton, but it was the linebackers who finished the job. USC's top three tacklers were linebackers, with a fourth (Reginald Bowens) tied for fourth. Quin Smith led the team with six tackles, Rodney Paulk had five and Shaq Wilson had four, with the trio combining for two tackles for loss as well. Once Kentucky found out that Newton wasn't going to be able to throw due to the relentless pass-rush, it knew it would have to try to stay even with Newton's legs. That didn't work, either.
Kentucky was rather punchless, but the fact remains that opponents can't run or pass against USC, not just run and not pass like it was a few years ago. The Gamecocks' secondary continues to improve, checking in this week at No. 1 in the SEC (still) and No. 3 nationally. USC allowed 17 passing yards and intercepted four passes, all by defensive backs. C.C. Whitlock drew the most applause (and guffaws) for picking off a pass and racing to the sideline so he wouldn't get the ball popped loose again, and he also helped deflect a pass that D.J. Swearinger nabbed. Stephon Gilmore kept tracking a ball to intercept it just before he ran into his end zone, then reversed and got a few yards on the return. Victor Hampton won a jump-ball for his first career pick. If there was a complaint, it was that Antonio Allen didn't get a turnover. He deserved a break.
Sanders deserves a lot of credit for continuing to catch punts in heavy traffic, but the Gamecocks are still not getting anything in punt-return yardage. Ditto on kickoff return yardage, especially after Ellington fumbled away the opening kick. Jay Wooten kicked two field goals, but also missed one; and he had a PAT blocked (by a guy who has blocked seven punts in his career). The special teams aren't doing anything to lose a game, but they're not really doing anything to win it. What makes it slightly above average is that Wooten's field goals this year have all been from 40 yards or more.
Perhaps all of these formations were in place when Stephen Garcia was quarterbacking, and simply couldn't be used - what good would a trick formation be if the man in charge of running it couldn't execute a simple formation? Spurrier pulled out all of the stops this week, using the Emory and Henry, "Wildcat" with Lattimore and Ellington taking the snap, using the option and utilizing the Gamecocks' speed. It's exactly the tonic that was needed when the plan of a few long balls, then handing off to Lattimore, hit a snag. The Gamecocks looked more fluid than they have, really, since Spurrier arrived. Defensive plays were grand as well, although it may have simply been the result of Kentucky being very, very bad. Still, an outstanding effort.
OVERALL GRADE: A
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