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November 6, 2011

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Arkansas

GamecockCentral.com's David Cloninger breaks down the best, worst and plain nastiest moments from South Carolina's 44-28 loss at Arkansas.



NO. 8 ARKANSAS 44, NO. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA 28

THE GOOD

BENCH STRENGTH: Steve Spurrier correctly figured that Arkansas would be keying on Brandon Wilds, who rushed for 137 yards last week, so he switched it up on the second series, with Kenny Miles. While the Gamecocks have always seen Miles as a case of they really don't know what they're going to get, on Saturday, they got plenty. Miles only rushed twice for 9 yards, but he caught two passes for 30 yards and was instrumental on USC's final touchdown drive that made the game 30-28 with 10:30 to play. On that drive, he caught his two passes on consecutive plays, and on the last, a 23-yard catch-and-run, he bowled over his first defender for extra yards. He also sprung a key block that allowed Connor Shaw to rush for 12 yards to the 1-yard-line. Miles' career has been star-crossed - Walter Payton one day, Walter Sobchak the next - but against Arkansas, it was more of the former. If he can keep that going through the end of the year, USC can have a 1-2 backfield punch to add to the running talents of Shaw.

OPPORTUNISTIC: After a quiet few weeks on defense - at least, quiet in the sense that it wasn't scoring touchdowns - the Gamecocks again rose. Tyler Wilson couldn't get C.C. Whitlock off him on a cornerback blitz, the senior doggedly hanging onto the bigger man's waist, and for the first time in 185 pass attempts (sixth-longest in SEC history), Wilson made a bad throwing decision. He tried to flip the ball out-of-bounds, but didn't reckon the hulking Devin Taylor standing right there. Taylor reached up with those sky-scraping arms of his and plucked the ball out of the air, and it seemed like he was already in fourth gear when he started running. Taylor out-ran the two Razorbacks closest to him for a touchdown, giving USC a brief 14-10 lead. Very definition of teamwork.

DON'T SAY NUTHIN': Speaking of, Taylor has had an under-sung year, playing well but not getting the big plays of Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney. On Saturday, Taylor had the touchdown, plus three tackles, (1.5 for loss), the Gamecocks' only sack and a pass break-up.

NEVER SURRENDER: When the game got out-of-hand late due to USC turnovers, the Gamecocks' defense faced a case of hard-hitting knowledge. It was a case of, "Guys, we're going to lose. But the only way we can keep this sort-of respectable is not letting them cross the goal line here." Arkansas had three drives in the fourth quarter that started inside the USC 37, and only scored one touchdown (the one where it started at the 1). On the others, Taylor, Rodney Paulk, Reginald Bowens, D.J. Swearinger, even Byron Jerideau were there, swarming the ball-carrier and doing what they could to salvage a little bit of pride. Of course it was lost in the shuffle - even with it, USC lost by 16 - but it was nice to see effort even in a lost cause.

HORSESHOES: Good - USC continues to get some lucky bounces. The only difference on Saturday was that, Bad - USC couldn't make them count. Arkansas dropped three touchdowns. The Razorbacks' receivers, as good as they were, were afflicted with stonehands on some crucial plays. Those kept USC in the game, but unlike other games this year, didn't point to a victory.

VIC FOR VICTORY: Victor Hampton has proven he is a more-than-capable cornerback since he returned from a three-game suspension to start the year, bringing a mix of talent, intensity and straight-up anger to the secondary. Now, he's also proven he can return kicks. While special teams coach John Butler wasn't available last night to talk about the decision, Hampton took over as kickoff return specialist and had a grand night. He had six for 168 yards, including a 55-yard scamper that set up a touchdown. Hampton appears to finally be an answer to a long-reaching problem - USC's returners have either been fast but can't make a guy miss, or spend too much time juking instead of running. Hampton ran straight ahead, was plenty quick enough to do it, and read his blocks well. A fine performance for a guy that wasn't on the radar (at least, in that area).

STILL THERE: As Gamecock Nation screamed, cursed and whined, the Gamecocks themselves faced a sobering reality - for eight weeks they had controlled their own destiny, and in the ninth, they failed to. Yet, they realized what the fan base didn't seem to - the chance to win the SEC East isn't as strong as before, but the chance is still there. Yes, it requires some help. Yes, USC and Georgia are driving the car at the same time. But no, it is not over. Put it this way - would you rather it be like it used to be, when USC was out of the SEC East race by Sept. 30?




THE BAD

WHAT IF: Some of the worst news for USC hit right before kickoff, when Antonio Allen took the field in his warm-up suit and no uniform. As GamecockCentral.com was the first to report, Allen took himself out of the lineup, saying that he couldn't feel his neck and couldn't turn his head. Now, nobody can definitely say that if Allen would have played, Arkansas wouldn't have hit some of those passes. But Allen would have provided a steadying presence, a veteran's poise, and you know he would have had at least five tackles. Damario Jeffery is a freakish athlete, but doesn't fit into one spot in the Gamecocks' scheme, and he showed it. He was letting his men get behind him all night, not realizing that once a receiver stopped moving, that didn't mean he was going to keep not moving. To be expected to be Allen was impossible, but Jeffery continued to show that he's in a quandary - great athlete, great skills, but where to display them? If Allen is held out longer than a week, enemy passing games have got to feel confident.

HE'S GOOD, THAT'S WHY: No matter how much USC blitzed or rushed Wilson, he handled it. That's what he does. He knew when to roll out, threw better on the run than any quarterback I've seen in a while and had that unspoken ability to connect to his receivers - he knows that they'll be there, doing whatever it takes to get to the ball, instead of going to a spot and turning around. USC pressured him but couldn't get to him, and when a secondary that's been as maligned as the Gamecocks' has has to compete with four or five receivers running all around, it's going to be difficult. I thought one of the biggest plays in the game was just after USC went ahead 14-10. The Gamecocks didn't blitz on the first play, let Wilson stand back there and find a man - BOOM, Jarius Wright in the middle of three defenders and out-runs all to the end zone. On one play, momentum goes right back over.

NOT THE WORD: It's time to rubber-stamp it - not redshirting Damiere Byrd after his four-game suspension to start the year was a mistake. There is no doubt whatsoever that Byrd is trying as hard as he can, but he's not ready for college football and it's painfully obvious. First, with USC's lack of pass-blocking, that takes him out of the receiving equation. Second, even if USC gets good blocking, Byrd stutter-steps at the beginning of the route instead of simply running straight ahead, using his speed to fly past the secondary and let the quarterback drop the ball in his hands. Third, it's no guarantee that if he does that, the quarterback can drop the ball in his hands. Fourth, every time he comes in the game, the opponent knows it's probably going to be an end-around, and Byrd's speed is negated by not having a hole to run through. He has talent, but it's being wasted on an offensive scheme that set up one way when he wasn't able to play. Square peg in a round hole.

SNIFFED OUT: USC is a running team. No question. Why did it abandon the run? Because it was behind two scores and had to. That's part of the game, but it's anything but comfortable to watch.

TIMEOUT: Besides the still-annoying and unsettling trait of getting to the line, looking to the sideline for a play, then having to call timeout because everybody's not on the same page, I thought another huge moment came in the fourth when USC had made it a 30-28 game. Arkansas was driving and Wilson threw to the sideline, where Julian Horton was waiting. The pass appeared to be low and scooped, and Horton appeared to have stepped out-of-bounds, but whatever happened, it was ruled a completion. Arkansas scored two plays later. Where was the appeal? Where was the request from Spurrier to at least look at that catch? At the very least, call a timeout and let the defense rest and perhaps give the officials a chance to re-think. Didn't happen.

DID YOU WATCH?: Vanderbilt ate Arkansas alive with passes to the middle of the field last week, and everybody in the country saw it. Yet, for the majority of the first three quarters, USC was the same old side-to-side, screen-passing game plan. It began to throw to the middle late, but not enough to be effective. I get that Spurrier is nervous about Shaw throwing over the middle, since he's really still a rookie quarterback, but if it worked for Vandy, I can't see it not working for someone else.




THE UGLY

HONEYMOON OVER: Spurrier has raved about special-teams coach John Butler since he took over, saying that the first-year coach brings a passion and intensity to the spot that has long been missing. For eight games, it was at least solid if not spectacular. In the ninth, it collapsed. Dennis Johnson sprinted 98 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff after USC had taken the lead, turning the momentum completely the other way. It digressed from there. Poor tackling, poor coverage, another poor effort from punting and kicking off. USC is stuck with who it has, and it's hard to blame Butler for what he was handed when he got here (he didn't recruit any of these guys). What has to happen now is Butler has to take charge, and start asking for scholarships just for his players, especially kickers. Everybody else in the SEC has a kicker that can constantly put it out of the end zone, and a punter that can directional-kick it or drive it 50 yards whenever asked. At USC, kicker Jay Wooten is on scholarship, but only for this year when there was one left over. Punter Patrick Fish is as well, and he can't crack the two-deep. While Hampton did well returning kicks, USC's other returners never have a chance to do the same due to awful blocking or simply having no other choice but to catch it, due to the other guy. It's been a problem for years, and Butler was hired to correct it. It's his first year, so give him time, but he's got to get a true kicker for next year instead of relying on walk-ons.

PAYING FOR PAST SINS: Many of the most laughable threads I read on GamecockCentral.com after the game were from the all-pros who felt that hiring an offensive coordinator would make USC's problems disappear. Here's why it wouldn't - it's not the play-calling, it's the blocking. Hard to design a game plan that's diverse and revolutionary when you know that on at least five of every 10 plays, the quarterback will be running. USC simply can't block long enough to get a passing game going, and while that all falls back to Spurrier, the worst part is it's not going to get better for a while. Spurrier trusted former assistant coaches far too much when recruiting offensive linemen at the beginning of his tenure, and those mistakes are showing now. USC has no depth and no answers for when the line collapses, and while the youngsters on the team now are thought to be solid prospects, it takes a while, especially in this league, to become one. An offensive coordinator would only remove Spurrier from blame, which wouldn't please the fans at all - then they couldn't call for the proven solution when things go wrong. That being, "Fire (fill-in-the-blank)!"

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