GAMECOCKS SHOULD CELEBRATE A VICTORIOUS RETURN TO CONFERENCE PLAY
By John Loveday || Going into halftime of last weekend’s game with a 21-6 lead over lowly Alabama-Birmingham, it’s not hard to see why so many South Carolina fans were feeling apprehensive – especially given the Gamecocks’ lackluster offensive performance. However, the total domination demonstrated by USC in the second half showcased not only Steve Spurrier’s young talent, but also the “never give up” mindset of this Top Ten squad.
Let’s take a look at last week’s grades versus UAB and then look ahead to Saturday’s SEC home opener against Missouri … a game which will be televised nationally on CBS.
USC OFFENSIVE GRADE: B
Anytime you score 49 points on seven touchdowns you did something right – but this was a tale of two halves. In the first half (in which the offensive grade would have been a “C”), Connor Shaw looked noticeably rusty – connecting on only 8 of 14 passes with one touchdown and one interception. After re-injuring of his shoulder in the second quarter, Dylan Thompson took over – leading the Gamecocks to 28 unanswered points in the second half (an offensive grade of “A”).
Thompson also looked sluggish at first, but would up connecting on 5 of 10 passes for 177 yards with two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. Over the past two games Thompson is 26 of 47 (55 percent) for 507 yards with 5 passing touchdowns, no interceptions and the one rushing touchdown. USC Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore looked great against UAB in limited duty, even though the Blazers focused on stopping him all night by loading the box. Lattimore only carried the ball 12 times, but managed 85 yards with one touchdown – a score which broke the school’s all-time touchdown record.
Other notable offensive performances? Damiere Byrd had one catch for 94 yards (his first career touchdown), Bruce Ellington had 5 catches for 98 yards, Shaq Roland had one catch for 30 yards (also his first career touchdown), Ace Sanders had 4 catches for 55 yards and a touchdown and freshman running back Mike Davis ran the ball four times for 84 yards, including his first career touchdown.
USC DEFENSIVE GRADE: A-
USC’s defense wasn’t perfect against the Blazers, but coach Lorenzo Ward’s unit was extremely physical and played with plenty of passion. What was more impressive: 1) D.J. Swearinger’s three tackles, one pass breakup, and interception/ fumble return for a 65 yard score, OR 2) Jadeveon Clowney’s seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks? Both were solid. Meanwhile sophomore defensive lineman Kelcy Quarles continues to impress – recording 2 tackles (one for loss), one sack and a quarterback hurry against the Blazers.
USC is currently surrendering only 10 points per game – and its defense has now produced touchdowns in consecutive games.
The main difference in this game? Red zone opportunities.
UAB was 1 of 3 in the red zone with one field goal, while USC was 4 for 5 with four touchdowns. That’s an emerging trend, as USC has given up no red zone touchdowns (and just three field goals) in six trips so far this season. Meanwhile the Gamecock offensive has eight touchdowns and one field goal in 11 visits inside its opponents’ 20-yard line.
USC SPECIAL TEAMS GRADE: C
Let’s break these down one by one …
Below average kickoff coverage (D)
Excellent punt returns by Ace Sanders and Victor Hampton (A)
Poor field goal kicking (F)
Mediocre punting (C)
Perfect 7 for 7 on PATs (A)
Add it all up and you’ve got a “C” grade.
UP NEXT: MISSOURI
It was late December 2005 – and some friends and I were so excited about then-first year USC coach Steve Spurrier that we embarked on a 13-hour road trip down Interstate 20 to watch the Gamecocks play in the 2005 Independence Bowl against Missouri. USC quickly built up a 21-point first quarter lead over the Tigers, but collapsed down the stretch and lost the game 38-31. Of course no one is going to argue that the talent level of this 2012 Gamecock team is vastly superior to the 2005 squad.
Considering this will only be the third time USC and Missouri have faced off in football, there isn’t a lot of history to look back on. The Tigers will without a doubt be ecstatic to play their first SEC away game when they enter Williams-Brice this Saturday.
Excluding Missouri’s first game against FCS opponent SE Louisiana, the Tigers have been outscored 30-0 in the fourth quarter against their last two opponents – Georgia and Arizona State. That shows they have quality starting talent, but lack the depth across the board to play at full speed for four quarters.
That lack of depth cost the Tigers dearly against the Bulldogs. Missouri entered the fourth quarter trailing by only four points, but ended up losing by three touchdowns. The Tigers almost lost another game last week against the Sun Devils – squeaking out a 24-20 win after entering the fourth quarter with a 17-point lead.
What will be interesting in this matchup is the quarterback play for both teams. While many Gamecock fans – myself included – expected Dylan Thompson to start over the banged up Connor Shaw, Spurrier named Shaw as his starter. Meanwhile last week Missouri was forced to play redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser over starter James Franklin – who injured his arm during the Georgia contest.
It would be in USC’s favor to go up against Berkstresser, since he lacks experience and is not considered a dual threat quite like Franklin. Berkstresser completed 21 out of 41 passes (51 percent) for 198 yards with no touchdowns and one interception against Arizona State. He also carried the ball 18 times for 25 yards and a touchdown.
Franklin seems like he is a “go” though, so the Gamecocks had better prepare to do their best to contain him – a task that will be more difficult without starting free safety D.J. Swearinger, who will miss the game due to a suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit against UAB.
If USC’s defense continues playing at its current level, Missouri will have a tough time pulling off the upset. The USC defense, home crowd, and overall team speed will make life difficult for the Tigers. Assuming Franklin is indeed the starter, I see a 27-17 USC victory. If Berkstresser is forced to play for extended periods – expect that margin to grow.
John Loveday is a South Carolina public school educator and sports enthusiast. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.