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November 13, 2011

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Florida

GamecockCentral.com's David Cloninger breaks down the best, worst and plain nastiest moments from South Carolina's 17-12 win over Florida.



NO. 15 SOUTH CAROLINA 17, FLORIDA 12

THE GOOD

THE RUNNING MAN: Brandon Wilds probably knew it was going to be a tough day from the beginning, since Florida, like all opponents, knew that South Carolina wasn't going to pass and played for the run. Wilds had to lower his head and slam into those burly defensive linemen and linebackers and keep his legs churning, knowing that he might look like a walking bruise at the end of the day but he had to do it. Well, he did. Wilds had his second 100-yard game in just three tries, rushing for a sturdy 120 even though most of the runs were 2 or 3 yards. But he stuck with it, held onto the ball (two fumbles in first two games) and soon those runs started becoming 4 and 5 yards, and then a beautiful 20-yard cutback and dash through the secondary. Wilds may always be known as the guy other than Marcus Lattimore (and man, does that raise a dilemma for next year when Lattimore returns) but he's playing damned well for the circumstances. No line, true freshman, didn't get a lot of reps in the preseason, yet playing like a veteran. His shoulders were big enough to not only take the pounding from SEC defenses, but to carry the immense pressure of having to replicate what was lost. He's the focal point of the offense, and he's being asked to deliver - so far, he has.

NO SIR: Odds of Florida driving the field for a touchdown were extremely low - just not enough time. But after John Brantley kept finding his speed guys underneath, and knowing that all it would take would be one missed tackle, it was getting a bit ticklish in Williams-Brice Stadium in the fourth quarter. But as the pocket collapsed around Brantley on what would be the game's final play, and remembering that he had escaped a couple of sacks already, I was thinking that he would find a way to complete a pass. Maybe it looked different to some of you, but I swear this was my recollection while watching through my trusty binocs - Brantley stepping up, a crowd forming around his feet, he slightly bends over to run, and this arm as big as a fire hydrant reaches up from the pile, grabs a handful of belt and straight yanks him down. The arm belonged to Travian Robertson, and was one of those straight-up strength plays - I saw him do the same against East Carolina, where a runner hit the hole and got past Robertson until the big senior reached back with one arm and yanked the dude back in front. Big play at the biggest time of the game, as Brantley went down and USC stayed on him, making sure the clock was out before rising. Had to have it, and Robertson made it happen.

FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL: I've said it every week. This has been the best season in terms of USC getting the ball bounce its way that I can ever recall. Happened again on Saturday. How many Florida dropped passes? How many times where Chris Rainey hit the hole, got past the line and just fell down? I thought one of the biggest plays of the game was in the fourth quarter, after USC had kicked its field goal to lead 17-12 but had not really moved the ball all fourth quarter. Florida got the ball and in what seemed like immediately, was to the USC 48-yard-line. Then there was some kind of botched communication between Brantley and his runner, because as Brantley turned around, the tailback had already gone and he had nobody to hand off to. Brantley spun, saw the pressure coming down and went to the ground, wanting no part of a sack. That became second-and-16, which became third-and-21, and fourth-and-21. USC didn't score on the next possession, but was able to grind nearly five minutes off the clock. All because the Gators had a miscommunication.

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME: Again, huge plays by the defense. Stephon Gilmore sacks Brantley and knocks the ball loose on the second play of the game, Devin Taylor recovers. Jadeveon Clowney forces a fumble, Rodney Paulk recovers. Marty Markett picks off a pass that would have been a two-point conversion and a tie ballgame. Melvin Ingram bangs up his shoulder, returns a few plays later, charges through and sacks Brantley back to the Stone Age. Geez, Sharrod Golightly? Comes in just to disrupt the blitz, is there to trip up Jeff Demps on first-and-goal from the 2 for a loss. And most of all, D.J. Swearinger. Playing on a sprained foot, Swearinger, coined a "warrior" by Ingram afterward, hangs back on third-down passing situations, doesn't over-pursue, plays the man and smacks the receiver twice to leave the Gators short of the marker and forcing field goals each time. Those are championship plays - even if it appears that USC won't get to play for one this year (except the Palmetto State championship).

DUMB LINEMAN DRILL: Connor Shaw dropped back, threw, it was tipped at the line and as every one of the linemen were frantically looking around for it, tight end Justice Cunningham snuck in behind them, caught the ball and rumbled for 5 yards. How can a QB not feel confident when seeing that from one of his boys?

SEE YA: Bruce Ellington returns to kickoff return after Victor Hampton cracked his back during practice, and does well. No fumbles, and 103 yards on four returns. Good, solid returns from a guy that had lost his job because he was running straight into the pile, and then losing the handle.

RECORD-BREAKER: Yeah, two catches for 17 yards. But finally, after four weeks where it seemed he would have broken it during the first week, Alshon Jeffery is the Gamecocks' all-time leading receiver. As much as it will hurt to see Kenny McKinley's name lifted off the stadium ramps, Jeffery deserves it - a recruit who was a project and not an established player, Jeffery soared to great heights over the past three years. Yeah, Lane Kiffin was right - he'll be pumping gas someday. Into his brand-new Bentley. (A side note: Of all the players you could have picked, who would have thought it would be Ellington to throw him the record-breaking pass?)

RED CROSS-LESS: No major injuries after the game. Yeah, that's needed. USC was beginning to re-name a wing at Palmetto Baptist after the football team.

HAPPY HBC: Steve Spurrier cheerfully admitted that he wanted this one, telling a story that when he took the job, his Florida buddies told him it was a lost cause, and he would never overcome his former school. Well, this is the third time that he has, when no other coach since USC joined the SEC ever had one. Spurrier has the Gamecocks at a point where every win is a milestone, and Saturday was another one. First time USC has had back-to-back wins over the Gators, and although it wasn't a championship win, it was still nice. Anybody who complains about being 8-2 would do well to think back just four years ago, when 6-6 wasn't good enough.

AS IT SHOULD BE: Unless Kentucky pulls the biggest upset since Paper covered Rock, USC will not be going to the SEC Championship Game. But the only reason that's a disappointment is because USC went last year. The other 19 years the Gamecocks have been in the league, it was no big deal. The only championship in those years was the Palmetto State championship, the big one against Clemson at the end of the year. Now, that scenario is back on. Two weeks from Saturday is the Gamecocks' championship game, and it is at home, with two straight wins over said team already in the bag. The state stops when these two tussle, especially when each is in the Top 15 (as they should be in two weeks) and that's how it should be. Last Thanksgiving, there was another game already set to think about. Now, there's a bowl game, but this is the one that carries goodwill over until that bowl game, as it was in 2009. And I'd just like to point out - in that year, an ACC Atlantic Division champion with a high-flying offense also came to Williams-Brice Stadium favored to win, as it probably will this year. All that pre-game hype didn't matter one bit.

*THE SITUATION: As mentioned before, no SECCG appearance. But check out these platters that matter - USC beats Florida in two straight years for the first time. USC wins six SEC games in a season for the first time. USC, barring disaster next week, will finish with less than five losses under Spurrier for the first time. USC sweeps the SEC East for the first time. USC has gone 6-0 against Tennessee, Florida and Georgia over the past two years. USC will be in the Top 25 for a school-record 27th consecutive week come later today. USC has had eight straight non-losing seasons. USC will go to a bowl for the fourth straight year and sixth time in seven years.

There are much worse places to be.



THE BAD

JUST GOTTA ASK: As mentioned several times before, I've never coached a down of football outside of Tecmo Bowl (where I am the undisputed greatest to ever pick up the controller). But being cynical reporter guy, I just have to ask: What was going on here? End of the first quarter, USC trailing 3-0, Gamecocks drive downfield on a whole lot of runs and a little bit of luck (Cunningham catching that tipped ball). So, on third-and-2 from the Florida 22, Shaw … throws a fade pass to the corner of the end zone? For Wilds, the tailback? The pass was so far out in front and out of bounds that it didn't matter who it was intended for, but it was a very strange call. That got Jay Wooten on for the game-tying field goal, and he missed it.

JUST GOTTA ASK II: USC leading 14-3 at the half, Florida forces a three-and-out and goes down to kick a field goal. Gamecocks up 14-6, no problem, but need to score. So after running all up and down the field and with Wilds holding 90 yards, USC comes out … throwing the ball. And with Kenny Miles in the backfield. That became two incompletes (the second a pass interference call that got a first down) and two Miles gains for a combined 1 yard. Shaw ran for 2 yards, then a punt. Not exactly sure why Wilds would even be an option to be benched for a play, much less a series, at that point.

*THE SITUATION: In a year where every lucky bounce came to USC, the biggest one bounced away. Georgia had to win seven games to overcome the tiebreaker the Gamecocks had, and get some help; it did (although there is still one to play, let's be realistic). USC couldn't afford to lose any games after beating Georgia; it did. The Bulldogs have earned the right to go to Atlanta. And for those of you saying, "Well, LSU would have killed USC anyway," you may be right, but the players never thought that. Several of them told me directly, and I believe the team's mentality was, "Just get there, and it's one game. One game, where anything can happen." Can't get that one game now.



THE UGLY

MACHINE-O: I grew up on ACC basketball. With that, I also watched Dean Smith guide North Carolina to too many wins against my beloved Duke Blue Devils, and watched him do it while calling maybe one timeout over the whole time. Spurrier has done a great job at USC, and he will go down in history as the greatest coach in school history. But man, he should channel Dean to learn about timeouts. Not sure why the Gamecocks just can't get the right play on in the right time without having to whistle, "Stop! Let's talk about it." Three fourth-down chances, three timeouts after already lining up to snap. To be fair, the last two were converted. But geeeeeeez.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?: Give Shaw credit. In the first quarter, he tried to hang in and let the pass develop. The problem was USC's line was so shoddy that he would get hit, pressured, forced to throw on the run - anything but stand there, plant his feet and cast downfield. What's ugly about it is that it won't get better. USC's offensive line is what it is, to quote Spurrier, and it's not going to magically get better. Shaw will just have to hope to hit one deep pass for one game - like he did to Ace Sanders for 46 yards on Saturday. A constant downfield passing game won't be happening any time soon.

NUMBER 1 IN HEART, NOT FIELD: I think it's time to rubber-stamp it - Jeffery will never catch a deep pass again as a collegiate player. USC can't block long enough for it to happen, the game plan always emphasizes running and Jeffery isn't fast enough to get downfield and get his hands up in the air to catch one. You sit there and watch the game and think, "Just throw it up and let him go get it," but the fact is that with USC's bad blocking, there is never enough time to even do that. If USC does throw the deep ball, it is intended for the fast guys - Sanders, Wilds, Damiere Byrd, etc. The Gamecocks are winning without their biggest playmaker, but it's frustrating and unsettling to watch this year spin away from him after being a Biletnikoff Award finalist last season. To his credit, Jeffery is running much better routes and if he's angry about his lack of production, he's doing a good job of disguising it. But it's just not going to happen for him this season, and there's no reason to think that he'll be around next season.

*THE SITUATION: Even though the game last year was a rout, it was great for USC as a program to be in the SEC Championship Game. This year, as fun as it has been to watch a team win a lot of games that maybe it shouldn't have won and be right on the cusp of making a return visit, there won't be that trip. With a bunch of very productive seniors set to graduate and some underclassmen eyeing the NFL as well, the Gamecocks are staring down a dark tunnel. I'm not saying it won't ever happen again, but these past two years have had some special circumstances. Florida and Tennessee won't be rebuilding forever. Georgia stands to be very strong again next year. Arkansas will probably remain a permanent opponent. LSU cycles back onto the schedule next year. Missouri and Texas A&M are future opponents. In short, Spurrier has the Gamecocks where the SECCG is a reality, not just a hope. But how long will that last?

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