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September 18, 2011

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Navy



NO. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA 24, NAVY 21

THE GOOD

DESERVIN' TO BE POSIN': Ever notice how Marcus Lattimore runs into the end zone? Just gets in, finds the nearest referee and flips the ball to him, no celebration, mugging, flexing of the pipes or Sharpie-ing the ball. He acts like he's been there before, which may be another thing that's so unusual - for the first time in a long while, the Gamecocks have a consistent superstar, and he doesn't act like one. Lattimore keeps approaching the game with an earnest mentality, even when he churns out a career-high 246 yards, which is more than The Great George Himself ever had in one game. Lattimore has already been called by one national outlet (CBSSportsline.com) as the nation's best running back and surely won't be backing off the Heisman Trophy watch list after Saturday. Yet, he never gives it the ol' Desmond Howard pose in the end zone. Just flip the ball, maybe take a helmet pat from an O-lineman, and run back to the sideline to get ready to do it again. He's a star, folks, and he'll keep being a star because of his approach to the game and his production when he's out there. Sure, it'd be nice to give him some rest every now and then, but Lattimore never seems to get tired. His 37th carry (and 41st touch) seemed more energetic than the 31-yard peel he had on his first carry, and the last was into a horde of Navy defenders.

abcD: Everyone knew the defense would face a problem with Navy's offense - Ellis Johnson said afterward, and I wholeheartedly agree, that playing that kind of offense is mostly guesswork. I wasn't surprised when the Midshipmen churned yard after yard downfield, knowing the exact moment to dive for a few extra yards and mastering the gift of getting yards even when the play was sniffed out. But the D made the plays when it counted. Devin Taylor fell on Kriss Proctor on fourth-and-2 to give the Gamecocks the final possession of the first half. D.J. Swearinger jumped on Proctor on a roll-out to force a punt in the fourth. Jadeveon Clowney bowled over two Navy linemen (because that's how his hometown boys roll) to harass Proctor on Navy's final drive. And Antonio Allen with the game-clinching pick. I know Johnson wasn't doing Melvin Ingrams (i.e., standing backflips) over the performance, but his D faced a problematic offense and won.

CHARLES WOODSON?: Speaking of, what more does Allen have to do to get some recognition? I realize it may be difficult because he's technically not a linebacker and technically not a defensive back, but man, that dude just keeps making big plays. Four turnovers that he's recovered in his last four regular-season games. He seemed ticked that he didn't get to the end zone this time, but realized that squelching a drive was good enough. Defensive players can win the Heisman, you know …

REMEMBER US?: That's right, Stephen Garcia threw to somebody not named Alshon Jeffery, and did it more than once. Extenuating circumstances, I guess, since we found out later that Jeffery was docked a start for violating a minor team rule. I honestly thought that Steve Spurrier sat Jeffery on purpose, just to say, "Dang it, somebody else is going to catch one tonight." Whatever the reason, it worked. Jason Barnes showed up after a horrible night in his hometown for the season-opener. Nick Jones emerged as a steady option, even though it may have been at the expense of Ace Sanders. Justice Cunningham kept showing that he may not be the sexiest pass-catcher in the world, but he's very reliable and won't be tackled easily. It was getting to be crucial that Garcia find somebody else to look for besides Jeffery, and that they all managed to get some yards-after-catch instead of being tackled on the landing said a lot.

THE WORD: Jay Wooten has only kicked two field goals in his USC career, but they have been from 49 and 48 yards, have both split the uprights with room to spare and have both been in clutch situations. His one on Saturday bailed the Gamecocks out of a completely awful final first-half series and gave them a crucial 17-14 lead, and showed that USC may be returning to the days of Ryan Succop - having a kicker where it's not in the realm of impossibility that he can boot one from 50 yards. Wooten isn't living in the spotlight, but he's getting the job done, and if he can keep knocking them in, he'll keep getting chances.

MAKE'EM TOO MUCH NOISE: The Williams-Brice Stadium crowd got noisy in a few spots and Navy couldn't get its play off, causing a 5-yard penalty for delay of game. To put that in perspective, Navy had two penalties all year coming into Saturday. The delay was its third of the game.


THE BAD

abcD: I gave the defense an asterisk for the East Carolina game, because the opponent ran a specialized offense. Navy did the same, so I'm obliged to do the same. Really, a team can play perfect and still get gashed by that option, because there's really no telling where the ball is going to go from time to time. It's mostly just smacking the guy you're matched up with and hoping you get the chance to smack someone else. The defense did a lot better than other teams have this year (although those others were Delaware and Western Kentucky) and had the stops when it counted, but it gets lumped into the bad as well as the good because of pass defense. A 33-yard pass on third-and-10? A 16-yard pass on fourth-and-15? Just inexcusable. I realize that it's hard to blitz and pass-rush when a team hardly ever throws, but on those downs, it seemed as if Proctor sat back there all day and just picked his poison. Vanderbilt will pass. Auburn will pass. Everybody will pass. It's getting well past the point of, "Well, … "

DYNA-PFFT: I've heard that Bruce Ellington is fast and can slip a tackle. I've seen him do it, against my beloved alma mater on a high-school football field and get between two up-men on a basketball court. Where is it on the college football field? Ellington had two kickoff returns for a combined 36 yards, each where he ran straight into the pile. I've seen that many times before. All I heard in preseason was how Swearinger was going to handle kickoff returns, and thus far, he hasn't. It's only three games in, but if Ellington keeps running directly into the pile like he did against East Carolina and Navy, probably going to limit what he can do against the SEC (see Culliver/Sherman, Years Past).

TOUCH: Good play. Garcia hands to Lattimore, he flips to Garcia, there's a man downfield - Garcia overthrows Sanders by a foot. Three first possessions when he enters, three times where he's thrown over his intendeds. I find it hard to believe that a quarterback with this much experience still can't master the touch to go with velocity, especially when I saw it later in the game. Garcia hits Sanders there, easy and exciting six points that saves Lattimore's legs. As it turned out, yet another dead possession.

WHEN THE BULLET HITS THE BONE: Another overall clean game for USC, with only five flags for 33 yards, one of which was a block-in-the-back on a kick return. Most of the others? False starts. I get it, they almost always happen at least once during a game. Just look at the sheer weight of it (pun intended) - a 300-some-odd-pound lineman can't always stand motionless during a hard snap count. It just seems that over the past 10 years, the only time the Gamecocks false-start is when they're either backed up in their own end zone or when they're trying to get a go-ahead score. Against Navy, Cunningham moved on first-and-10 from the USC 22-yard-line, immediately after the Gamecocks had gained a first down. While driving for the tying touchdown in the second quarter, Rokevious Watkins was flagged for holding (and the play went for a 1-yard loss). Aggravating to see, and still a belief that one day, the Gamecocks will hit the greatest play ever designed, and then see a flag on the field.

WHAT'S HE THINKING?: Lot of discussion about this one after the game, at least in the media elevator and pressbox. What was Spurrier thinking when he sent the team out for an onside kick with eight minutes left in the second quarter? Ended up being a moot point, since it was recovered by Navy and then wiped out because the Midshipmen had called timeout just before that. But why?

Here's the thing: I agreed with the call. Think about it. USC had just tied the game and was going to get the ball first in the second half. The Gamecocks' defense had not stopped Navy's offense all game. If they boot it deep, the Midshipmen would likely use most if not all of those eight minutes to score before halftime, and USC would have no chance to equal it, meaning it's still playing behind in the second half. But if they onside-it, giving Navy half a field, if they don't score, cool. If they do score, USC probably has some time to try and equal it, then go for the go-ahead in the second half. The only problem was, and Spurrier agreed with me afterward, was the execution. The team went out there in onside formation right from the sideline, which wasn't supposed to happen. That's why Navy called timeout. If they really wanted to do it, they should have lined up in regular formation, then quickly audibled for the switch, then see if Navy bites and still calls time. Ended up being nothing anyway - Navy was stuffed and USC got in position for a field goal.

But right call, I thought, just bad execution.


THE UGLY
(Increasing from piddly to what the hell?)

BUTTON, BUTTON, WHO'S GOT THE BUTTON?: I get it that a sideline is a very confusing place sometimes. Everybody yelling at everybody else, people milling around, TV cameras and trucks and photographers and sideline cupcakes (edit: "reporters"). As part of that, I guess it's sometimes confusing for every player to hear every alignment, and maybe send one too few or one too many players out on the field. When the Gamecocks finally forced a second Navy punt (after the first-quarter quick-kick), they ran the punt coverage team on the field. It consisted of eight men. Eight. No damage done, but these are the kinds of plays where I feel like Pepper in "Major League," standing by the batting cage when Willie Mays Hayes first steps in during spring training. (I found an Italian version, so it edits out the language. Check the 1:46 mark and pay attention to the guy wearing No. 16 -- Click)

OH, FOR … : I've coined the term "USC plays" and the phrase "only at USC" over the years, because it seems like there are always those strange plays that the Gamecocks screw up, that never happen to any other team. There was another one against Navy. Alexander Teich bulldozed through the middle and Allen pursued, getting a hand in Teich's cradle and ripping the ball loose (again, Allen for Heisman). The ball bounced forward and Marty Markett was there, racing full-speed to the bouncing ball. Markett fell on it - and rolled off of it. Navy's John Howell recovered it and it was a total gain of 32 yards. It would be heartbreaking, I imagine for you fans, if it wasn't so familiar.

GRADE SCHOOL: The conundrum that is Stephen Garcia continues to be explored. On some plays, All-American. On others, backup for the JV team. He had a very solid game, numbers-wise, and to stand in there on third-and-long and look at Jones for his primary receiver took some guts and a fifth-year senior's learned experience. But … First possession, second half, Gamecocks going for that crucial second score so Navy can play behind, and Garcia is working it. Lattimore churning downfield, Garcia hitting Jeffery for 16 yards as well, and a nice little toss to Barnes. Then first-and-10 at the Navy 18, rush comes in, Garcia panicked. He was waiting for the hitch-and-go to develop and was being rushed by two defenders. The smart QB alertly picks it up, sees he can't get it far enough for the receiver and rifles it into the camera guys on the sideline. The understandable decision, since it's coming fast, is either tuck the ball and go down, or try to slip the tackle (which probably wouldn't have happened), tuck the ball and go down. What should not be done is try to make the play still happen.

Guess which one Garcia chose?

He said he got hit as he released, and he did. He also said the play was there. That may be true, but I didn't seen anyone with that good of a break on the ball, or at least nowhere in the vicinity where he threw it. What happened was he threw a wounded duck that, as soon as it left his hand, the crowd began groaning. Kwesi Mitchell could have fair-caught that interception.

That high-school mentality of trying to make everything into something, one would think, would have been shed after two or three years playing in college. Just cannot have that going forward. Fifth-year senior playing the position should make a fifth-year senior decision. There are enough weapons around Garcia to win the games, as long as he doesn't do something foolish to lose it.

It was so bad that when Garcia was rushed later on and fired one into the cheerleaders, he got a warm round of applause. Not kidding.

HED BAWL KOACH: Spurrier has made his bones as a play-caller, and has won approximately 400 times the games that I've won, but sometimes, I sit there and think, "You know, for an offensive genius, that last series looked pretty bad." Happened again against Navy.

The Gamecocks are trying to take their first lead of the game since their defense held and got a stop. Three-and-a-half minutes to play in the first half, USC gets the ball first in the second half, two scores makes Navy play uphill. So with that time, and three timeouts, and 63 yards to go, what's the plan? Me, I hand it to Lattimore, who already had 115 yards and couldn't be stopped.

Lattimore had one carry on the final 10 plays of the first half. One.

He had two other touches, on short passes. The other plays? A sack, a QB keeper, two incompletes, two throws to Cunningham (which I admit, were nice. One was on third-and-long and one was on fourth-and-10). Then Wooten came on and kicked the field goal.

I get it that Spurrier is rankled that he has to be a "running team," despite having the best running back in the country to make him a running team. I get it that sometimes, he just has to throw the ball. I don't get it why passes would be the primary option in that case. Even after the first pass to Cunningham bailed the Gamecocks out, Garcia comes out throwing. Only an incomplete to Cunningham got Lattimore the ball on second down.

Everything turned out fine, but boy, there are times …

[Complete USC-Navy game coverage: Click here]

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