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October 31, 2011
Report Card: USC-Tennessee
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. 14 SOUTH CAROLINA 14, TENNESSEE 3
With Bruce Ellington hobbled by a bad hamstring - and the game really too close and too formulaic to shake the offense up - it was Connor Shaw's show. As usual for Shaw, he did well. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Shaw is never going to be a 300-yard passer, or the kind of quarterback that other teams look at and marvel at why they can't get that kind of player. Shaw is a controller. He plays within his abilities, doesn't try to do too much, mostly hits the crucial plays when he needs to and mostly doesn't do anything to lose the game. His passing stats were pretty pedestrian - a mere 10-of-18 for 87 yards, a touchdown and an interception - but his rushing stats (16 for 64) were very nice. Shaw held onto the ball, except for the pick where he tried to float a pass over a defender who was camped on his receiver, and drew the Tennessee defense into him on a fourth-and-1 roll-out, which freed Buster Anderson to sneak behind the secondary and go for a touchdown. If there's a weakness to Shaw's game, it's that he doesn't have the arm to get the ball deep downfield, which basically eliminates what Alshon Jeffery does best, but that can also be pinned on the offensive line not blocking long enough to give Shaw room to try. Still, he's staying out of trouble on the pass-rush, although sometimes he reverts back to that "Run!" mentality when maybe an extra second could open a passing lane.
It's only one game, but what a one game. Brandon Wilds galloped for 137 yards and showed an excellent mix of running between the tackles and splitting outside. He only got held up at the line a couple of times, and showed a great ability to keep his feet churning despite tacklers surrounding him. While no one is about to say that the Gamecocks don't miss Marcus Lattimore, Wilds surely did a fine impression of USC's offensive showcase. He got the ball on the first play from scrimmage, and got the ball on the next-to-last play from scrimmage. What's more, he finished the game and wasn't wearing any extra brace/pad/cast/hyperbaric chamber afterward. It's been that kind of year for USC's tailbacks. Damiere Byrd did well when he got the ball (no negative yardage) and Kenny Miles well, at least he was able to spell Wilds for a bit. I love that kid, really, but man, is it frustrating to see him get held up at the line and/or bodyslammed on a tackle. Still, the day belonged to Wilds, and the freshman shut everybody who ever questioned him, what we call, the hell up.
I keep getting asked the question - why does USC struggle passing? Is it the quarterback running too quickly from the pocket, or bad protection, or the receivers not running the right routes? Honestly, I think it's mostly "B." USC's line isn't holding its blocks long enough for a deep route to open, and oftentimes, not enough for a simple slant. USC has been relegated to quick screen passes right off the snap, which basically takes Jeffery's effectiveness and ability for big plays and chops it in half, if not chops it in quarters. Jeffery has been chasing Kenny McKinley's school record for career receiving yardage all season, and went into the Mississippi State game less than 100 yards from the goal. Two games later, he's still shy. To the receivers' credit, they're catching the ball when it's thrown to them, but USC is now a running team. It's not being gun-shy in the pocket, it's having room to sit back and throw. Steve Spurrier has mentioned that Jeffery is frustrated, but taking it well; he also said that Jason Barnes, D.L. Moore, Ace Sanders et al are also frustrated because they all want to get their hands on the ball. It is what it is, as the Head Ball Coach says, and the fact is is that USC just can't get the passing game unchecked enough to really open it up downfield. Screen passes and side-to-side routes are the norm right now, and shouldn't change unless Kyle Nunn miraculously heals. As for the receivers themselves, the grade is starting to become more about blocking and body language in a tight game rather than production.
Know what? I'm just about done grouping the tight ends in with the offensive line. They're becoming more and more valuable as receivers as USC's passing game continues to struggle. Anderson sneaks behind the defense, catches the lob and runs for a touchdown. Justice Cunningham goes up for a tough catch, gets leveled on the landing and holds onto the ball. They're doing what they can, and that's often more than enough.
As mentioned above, the pass-blocking is, at best, suspect. But the run-blocking on Saturday was very fine. Wilds, like Lattimore, seems to be that kind of back where if he can just get his front foot into a hole, he's going to get 4-5 yards, if not a passel more. Those holes appeared for Wilds on Saturday, and while USC may have known it would happen late in the game (Tennessee has been known to wilt in the second half), it happened in the first half as well. Shaw did take three sacks, but one was on a play where he ran out-of-bounds instead of just throwing it into the seats. At other times, thought, Shaw was running because he had to, when Rokevious Watkins and Cody Gibson were being shoved aside, pushed down or cleared out for the defenders to take a wide-open shot. Run-blocking was mostly very good, pass-blocking mostly very bad. So-So, although major credit to Gibson for sticking with the play on an interception, and making a touchdown-saving tackle (with extreme prejudice).
Can't complain about a defense that has 21 rushing attempts against it and gives up 35 yards. It sure seemed like Tauren Poole had a lot more than the 38 yards he was credited with, but USC's defensive line was wrapping him an awful lot. That, and the usual of the defensive front four paying rent in the opposing backfield. While there were a few missed sacks, Kelcy Quarles, Devin Taylor, Jadeveon Clowney and Travian Robertson were on Justin Worley and rushing past the Volunteers' offensive linemen all day. That's what they're there to do, and they're doing it. USC's defense is keeping the Gamecocks from getting too far behind, which is badly needed right now, and it's the line that is setting the tone.
With the Vols wanting to run the ball to protect Worley, Poole got his number called early and often. When USC's D-line wasn't squashing him, its linebackers were. Quin Smith continues to have a very fine, if under-stated, season and he was helped out by Rodney Paulk, playing very solidly, and Reginald Bowens (how much of a relief is it to see Bowens, who Ellis Johnson always called the most talented linebacker he had, staying healthy?) contributing three tackles. The Gamecocks' front four and the two guys behind were adjusting all night, sometimes playing Clowney back in coverage with Melvin Ingram up front, but it never sprung anything consistently productive for the Vols.
Yes, there are still some breakdowns in pass coverage, but let's face it - no defense is going to stop every pass. The Gamecocks are doing just fine at stopping the passes - when they absolutely have to. Vols have second-and-goal at the 2-yard line? There's D.J. Swearinger with a diving pick. USC turns it over and UT takes over inside the 30? There's Stephon Gilmore, diving in front of a Worley bullet on first down and taking away a touchdown. The way the Gamecocks are immediately answering is impressive, as if they know that the best way to completely reverse momentum is to return the favor. USC has 16 picks now, and a defensive back (DeVonte Holloman) led the team with eight tackles. Nothing wrong with that.
What to say? It's becoming painfully obvious that USC, whether it's its coverage teams blocking or the opponent always having a perfect kicker, is not going to get anything substantial on punt return. Credit Sanders for mostly catching every punt to him, always in severe traffic, but he did fumble his first one on Saturday and it led to a UT field goal. Kickoff returns were ehhhh, and the kickoff return team was allowing too many yards. Again, no field goals. It's not losing the game, but it's not helping win it. Although Gilmore partially blocking that field goal surely wasn't a deterrent.
Things I liked - the Shaw-to-Anderson play on fourth-and-1. Not losing patience with the Wilds-and-Shaw show on the scoring drive that made it 14-3. Things I didn't like - substituting Miles for Wilds immediately after a long run. Not even challenging for a deep pass to Jeffery (although I know pass-blocking is rather bad). I believe that Spurrier is being forced to be more and more patient, because the offense just isn't fluid, and that's helping the Gamecocks. You could tell he was itching to throw a deep pass but kept it to himself, and kept calling for Wilds up the middle or Shaw keeper. As befuddling as it is sometimes to watch a Spurrier team rely on the run, it's working. As a wise man once said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
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