A TALE OF TWO HALVES …
By John Loveday || One could not ask for a better example of how proper halftime adjustments can change the momentum and outcome of a football game.
Playing against unranked Kentucky last weekend head coach Steve Spurrier’s University of South Carolina football team was positively dreadful. Among the miscues USC allowed a blocked punt, failed on fourth-and-goal from the UK one yard line (where they inexplicably failed to call Marcus Lattimore’s number on back-to-back plays), sent a snap from center sailing over the head of quarterback Connor Shaw’s head, missed numerous tackles and dropped a sure touchdown pass.
Halftime – which literally could not come soon enough – allowed the sixth-ranked Gamecocks a much-needed chance to regroup and save their season.
How did the Gamecocks (5-0, 3-0 SEC) grade out against the Wildcats?
USC OFFENSIVE GRADE: F (first half)
The Gamecock offense only managed seven points in the entire first half. USC’s offensive line was pushed around at times by the Wildcat’s front four and the Gamecocks could not find much of a rhythm. For the second straight week USC would move the ball to their opponent’s one yard line and decide to run Connor Shaw versus Marcus Lattimore – both times being unsuccessful. I don’t pretend to know more than the USC coaches by any stretch of the imagination, but this decision is puzzling to say the least. Even with those plays aside, the pass protection was poor, route running was lowly, and the offense overall was unproductive in the first half.
USC OFFENSIVE GRADE: A (second half)
The second half was a completely different story – with the Gamecocks outscoring the Wildcats 31-0. After rushing only five times for 13 yards in the first half, Marcus Lattimore needed to be a major focus of the offense in the second half – and he was. Lattimore rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the second half alone – on eighteen carries.
“We just came out with a different focus in the second half,” Lattimore said after the game “They had all the momentum … they had things go their way (in the first half) … we just had to run the ball a little bit more.”
With an effective running game in the second half, USC’s play-action passing became much more effective. This is clearly the recipe for this team’s offensive success. And despite all the adversity of the first half, Connor Shaw was effective all night – completing 15 out of 18 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Shaw would also rush 19 times for 96 yards (20 yards were lost due to sacks).
Senior tailback Kenny Miles showed off his speed with an 18-yard touchdown run. It was nice to see Damiere Byrd catch a 30 yard touchdown pass in a big ball game – which cut the Kentucky lead to only three points in the third quarter. Byrd, Ace Sanders, and Bruce Ellington must continue to give USC a deep threat in order to keep opposing defenses from stacking the box and neutralizing Lattimore.
USC DEFENSIVE GRADE: D (first half)
With starting Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith going down with a leg injury on the second play of the Wildcat’s first possession, true freshman Jalen Whitlow was forced into action. Whitlow, unlike Smith, is a dual threat quarterback who gave the Gamecocks fits in the first half – with missed tackles (and a missed interception) compounding USC’s problems.
The result? A team that hadn’t given up more than 13 points over its last six games surrendered 17 points – in one half.
To be fair seven of those first half points came after Kentucky secured excellent field position from a blocked punt – which after watching the replay a few times looked illegal since the gunner leapt over the three-man blocking front.
Things could have been even worse, as defensive back Victor Hampton made a touchdown-saving tackle on the last play of the first half to deny the Wildcats a 24-7 halftime lead.
USC DEFENSIVE GRADE: A (second half)
Someone (or multiple persons?) must have given one heck of a halftime speech because the Gamecock defense come out in the second half looking like one of the nation’s elite defenses – which they are. South Carolina allowed only four first downs – and zero points – in the entire second half, providing the sort of dominating performance that Gamecock fans expected for all four quarters.
Brison Williams led the team with eight total tackles, while Devonte Holloman had his best performance of the season to date with six total tackles – two for loss. Holloman also had an interception and a sack. With seven sacks on Saturday the Gamecocks now have amassed 22 for the season – behind only Tulsa (with 24).
USC SPECIAL TEAMS GRADE: D
The only consistent aspect about USC’s special teams play is its inconsistency. Two weeks ago the Gamecocks’ special teams play helped to spark the offense, which eventually took control of the game against Missouri. Two plays against the Wildcats certainly looked awful – the first being the initial kickoff of the game (which Kentucky almost returned for a touchdown). However, the play was called back on a Wildcat penalty.
The second play was the blocked punt – which as noted earlier – appeared to have been the result of an uncalled penalty.
Special teams coach Joe Robinson insists that punter Tyler Hull is capable of performing better than we have seen thus far this season. Let us hope Hull comes around sooner rather than later – as field position will becoming increasingly important over the next three games against Georgia, LSU and Florida.
Bruce Ellington only had one opportunity to return a kickoff against Kentucky – and took it back 25 yards. Ace Sanders had virtually no opportunities on punt returns – with poor blocking and virtually no running lanes. In the placekicking game USC was five for five on PATs and one for one on field goal attempts.
Overall, this unit is clearly still a work in progress. The talent and coaching seems to be there, simply executing more often than not must be a focus moving forward. Gamecock fans can only hope the inconsistency of this unit will not end up costing the team a game down the road.
Check back later this week for a breakdown and prediction as the undefeated sixth-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks host the undefeated fifth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (and ESPN’s College GameDay).
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. EDT with the game being televised nationally on ESPN. South Carolina has now tied the longest win streak in school history with nine straight victories dating back to November 5, 2011. A win against the Bulldogs would not only set a new school record, but would also move South Carolina into the driver’s seat in the SEC East race.