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January 1, 2011

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Florida State

NO. 23 FLORIDA STATE 26, NO. 19 SOUTH CAROLINA 17

THE GOOD

No White Flag Required South Carolina knew how lousy it had previously played when Marcus Lattimore left games and had all the excuses in the world to pack it in when Lattimore was knocked out in the first quarter. The Gamecocks didn't. Their defense allowed them to stick in the game, despite four first-half turnovers, and when Spencer Lanning knocked a 40-yard field goal through as the half expired, USC was back into it. The Gamecocks never gave up, pulling out several of the trick plays that they had, and many worked. The offense regrouped, the defense played a fantastic game except for one too many crucial breakdowns. USC was good enough to win, but didn't. Even two points was too big of a hole to come back from after so many early struggles.

Stepping Up Be honest -- who saw Kenny Miles peeling off some of those runs and thought of Ryan Brewer? I really thought it would work out for him, but when the Gamecocks got down by 13 points, it wasn't really going to be conducive to a running-centered attack. Miles finished with 70 yards on 10 carries, while Brian Maddox played a fine final game, rushing for 53 yards on 12 carries with a touchdown. USC needed somebody to pace Stephen Garcia as he attempted to get past the loss of Lattimore and find his confidence after three picks, and the two backs did it. We all kind of know what the situation is with Miles, and how his playing time might be affected should he decide to stick around, but this is a boost of confidence for him. As good as Lattimore is, he has had to miss some pieces of games with injury, and now there is no Maddox to turn to. This game could be why Miles sticks around, instead of perhaps checking his transfer options.

Pass D Florida State only threw for 90 yards. Ninety. Who would have ever thought that possible with USC's pass defense, even with Christian Ponder on the sideline? The Gamecocks got a break when Ponder short-armed a would-be touchdown in the second quarter and he was knocked out of the game with a concussion later on, putting E.J. Manuel into the game. Manuel was good, but barely challenged the Gamecocks downfield. If not for one crucial breakdown on the final touchdown, it would have been the best performance all year for the secondary. As it was, Manuel's almost-fall in the fourth and Akeem Auguste's slip on covering Taiwan Easterling was the back-breaker.

Head Ball Coach I've said it every other year that Steve Spurrier has been in town but had not said it so far this season. There has always been a play where I've sat, watched it develop and said those three words when it hits, because it's a reminder of the way Spurrier terrorized defenses when he was at Florida. I said it when Blake Mitchell faked the handoff and bombed to Noah Whiteside for the first touchdown of the Spurrier era, and I said it when Garcia screened to Ace Sanders, then ran to the right corner of the end zone on Friday. As soon as Sanders slowed down, I thought, "Who covered Garcia?" and by then the ball was in the air. Beautiful play at the right time, and Spurrier pulled out a few more tricks as well (Stephon Gilmore quarterbacking one more time).

The Season Overall, a good year. Nine wins for only the third time in program history, the first SEC East title and appearance in the championship game, wins over Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia, a consecutive win over Clemson for the first time in 40 years. Nothing to be ashamed of. Except ... (more on this later).

THE BAD

Stephen Garcia played a pretty good game, but late. Those three interceptions were just rotten. I'll give him a break on the second one because D.L. Moore should have held onto it, but bobbled it a bit and it was picked off (the throw was a little behind him, but if it hits your hands, you ought to pull it in). The other two -- man. Throwing to Sanders in the end zone after scrambling right and planting off the back foot? Throwing inside to Alshon Jeffery, when he was one-on-one to the left corner and an outside-shoulder toss would have probably scored? Garcia has now played in three bowl games and has seven interceptions with no touchdowns. Sanders has thrown one more touchdown pass than he has. Garcia did return and almost lead the Gamecocks to a win, but you know what they say about "almost."

Latt Is it good or bad what Lattimore represents to the USC offense? Obviously, he's a talent and makes the team better. But when he's not there (Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida State), the team seems lost. First off, as good as Garcia has been at finding Jeffery or Tori Gurley on the posts, he can't hit that wheel route for squat. That was the play to Lattimore, Lattimore had to turn back to catch it, and when he turned forward, Greg Reid hit him so hard Lattimore might have thought that Reid played for Dorman High School. That was the first time he fumbled all year (excusable, considering the circumstance, but I kept thinking of all the times chumps like me had asked this week about how amazing it was that he never fumbled this season) and led to USC's first quarter of ineptitude. Lattimore is an amazing tailback, but I don't know, I find the idea of a team depending so heavily on a freshman a little unsettling. Everybody saw what happened when Lattimore was on the sidelines.

Chis A small point, and nobody's fault, but I felt extremely sorry for Garrett Chisolm. He dressed, but didn't play because of a knee injury. A horribly tough way to end a career for a kid who has been through so much, from coming to USC as a junior-college transfer and earning a starting nod, to losing both his parents in a year, to having to sit out his final game and stare at an uncertain next-level future due to an injury.

Missed opportunities It's these kinds of things that loom when a team cuts the deficit to two points. C.C. Whitlock dropped a sure interception at the goal line and Florida State scored a touchdown on the next play. Who didn't miss a tackle on Friday, going for the hit instead of extending the arms for a wrap? Maddox missing a sideline-streak pass that yes, he had to dive for, but it hit his hands and he dropped it. Jeffery also fumbling for the first time all year, after another great catch and a great strip from Reid. Jeffery catching 190 yards worth of passes, but also getting frustrated at a could-have-been saved throw and never leaving his feet. Getting called for a couple of clips or a late hit (on a fumble) that gave FSU free yards or knocked USC back when it stood to gain prime position, like on Gilmore's interception. Great teams don't make these mistakes.

Switch G.A. Mangus moved into the pressbox on Friday while Steve Spurrier Jr. went to the sideline. Spurrier said he wanted to try something different. Why do it now? In the final game of the year? It's been proven that having Mangus on the sideline, available to calm down Garcia after a bad play or series, is tremendously beneficial. And while Garcia could get on the headset or telephone, hearing a tinny voice telling you why you screwed up instead of having a comfortable hand on your shoulder and face-to-face contact isn't anywhere near the same. Just an odd time to do it, even though Garcia played much better in the second half.

THE UGLY

Akeem I like Auguste, I do. For one, he's never been hesitant to come out of the locker room after a loss and say he played badly or gave up a crucial play. That's exactly what he did on Friday, one of the first ones out who sat down and directly answered my question about what happened on the final touchdown. He said he slipped, he lost Easterling on contain and that's what allowed him to be wide-open for the back-breaker. Just bad karma, I suppose, that it was the same corner of the same end zone as that horrendous tipped Hail Mary touchdown against Auburn that was also the biggest play of the SEC Championship Game. Auguste was part of a secondary that was burned all year, but played very well on Friday; unfortunately for him, it was his man that caught that crucial TD. He'll be a senior next year, and if anyone has something to prove, it's him.

Special teams Really, what the hell? I think I mentioned this every week during the regular season, too. Lanning did a fine job, as usual, although Spurrier mentioned that he told him to punt out of bounds and Lanning was booming them down the middle, but the coverage and return games are just bad. Really, really bad. Reid had two punt returns for 53 yards and a kick return for 18 yards, Lamarcus Joyner had two kick returns for 44 yards. Those were the result of missed tackles or had yards added on to them because of facemasks or clipping. Then, the return game. Bryce Sherman knocked off his feet on first contact, collecting 38 yards on two kick returns. Sanders getting 3 yards on two carries (3 yards???) I asked Spurrier if he would change anything coaching-wise on special teams, he said no. Said it was a matter of getting better athletes on special teams, not the coaching. I honestly don't know who to blame. The coverage was obviously not there or missing tackles when it was there, and when a team hasn't returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2002 (or a punt since 2003), it's a deep-seated problem. But what do you do? Go offer a scholarship to the fastest kid you can find and say he's only going to return kicks?

Feb. 18 I said this to several who looked like they needed a pick-me-up after the game. What does it mean? The date of the baseball season-opener. Like I have constantly said, baseball season's just around the corner. I group it under "Ugly" because even after this football season, USC is still in that inconsistent phase. Baseball could field the most wretched team you ever saw, yet you know it will win its 40 and get to the NCAA tournament. That status as a program has avoided USC's other teams.

The Look Does this set USC back? The Gamecocks had a fine season, accomplishing several firsts. It was a good year. The problem was, ever since the Alabama win, most thought it would be a great year. Big difference between good and great. For the fourth straight season, the Gamecocks collapsed at the end. While USC took a lot of steps this year, it still didn't really turn the corner. It won an SEC East title, sure, but what else? Beating Georgia was nice, but the Bulldogs didn't have their best player. Tennessee is rebuilding. Alabama, great win. Florida at The Swamp, great win, even over a team that clearly was not the Florida of old. Clemson? Should have beaten them as badly as they did, even if it was on the road. Got the East championship and a rivalry win, but no conference title and no bowl win, plus no matching of the best win total in history. Really good, but the Gamecocks lost their final two games, and each in a stadium where they expect to return and play well. I wouldn't say it's a disappointment, but there's the sense of leaving unfinished business around the football offices.

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