September 11, 2011

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Georgia



NO. 12 SOUTH CAROLINA 45, GEORGIA 42

THE GOOD

I HEAR YOU KNOCKIN' Lefty Gomez once said, "I'd rather be lucky than good." South Carolina is good, but on Saturday, whether you classify it as luck or just being in the right place at the right time, there were some very fortunate moments. Calling a fake punt for a 267-pound defensive end that had never touched the ball in four years, and having it go for a touchdown? Isaiah Crowell fumbling on a routine run, and Stephon Gilmore scooping for a 56-yard return? A perfectly executed onside kick recovery called back for offside, immediately after Georgia had taken a 13-7 lead just before halftime? "Maybe the football gods will smile on us for a while," Steve Spurrier said, and he wasn't just whistlin' "Dixie." The Gamecocks got lucky on some plays and were very opportunistic on others, like running a fourth-quarter fumble for a touchdown instead of falling on it or having Antonio Allen step in front of a pass and race it to the house. They also got away with a pretty clear push-off from Alshon Jeffery for their first touchdown. But hey, it's not always the best teams that win, sometimes it's the luckiest. For instance, Auburn has won 17 straight games with a golden horseshoe lodged somewhere unmentionable - check out the last two games if you don't believe me.

NEW YORK-BOUND: Marcus Lattimore was held up early by a dominant Georgia defensive front, but as all good stud horses do, saved his best for the stretch run. The Bulldogs couldn't tackle Lattimore in a phone booth in the fourth quarter, the sophomore rushing for 94 of his 176 yards in the final frame. He was at his finest when the Gamecocks needed him most, peeling off runs of 24 and 36 yards to give USC great field position. Lattimore had a 112-yard outing against East Carolina, but Saturday's showing made him a Heisman Trophy candidate to stay and really sent a message - when the Gamecocks' passing game isn't clicking (and it hasn't in either game this season), hand it to No. 21 and watch him do what he does. Lattimore not only badly wants success, but he's more than capable of grabbing it. The Gamecocks have been waiting on a tailback this potent since Big George hung 'em up.

SHAKESPEARE: (With apologies to Marcus McBeth): Melvin Ingram, from tiny Hamlet, N.C. (get it?), scored two touchdowns and recovered the crucial onside kick in the fourth quarter. As my pal and amazing broadcaster Andy Demetra said, that was only the third time since 2006 that a collegian had scored an offensive and defensive TD in the same game. Now, I've heard the tales and seen some of them (Ingram did cut a standing-up backflip after a two-hour practice last week), but to see a man of that girth run faster than I've ever run in my life (I'm 202 now, but I used to be a svelte 175, as I guess we all did) was pretty amazing. As Ellis Johnson said, Ingram looked like an NFL fullback or tailback on that run, and skipped over a tackle from an NFL cornerback (Brandon Boykin). Ingram had the game of his career on Saturday, and as I was told before the game, if he doesn't make it in the pros as a defensive tackle, he could make a darned fine long snapper. The man is so versatile that he may collaborate with David Bowie on his next makeover.

OLD DEPENDABLE: Jeffery had another five catches for 85 yards and his first touchdown of the season, illustrating how valuable he is to the Gamecocks' offense. He's the first and almost-always second option on any pass play, and while the passing game is under construction, the constant has been, "throw it high and let him go get it." It's working, although Jeffery is almost a zero in yards after catch since Stephen Garcia can't hit him in stride. But that's why Jeffery is around - he can make the tough catches, such as an 8-yard diving slant with coverage all over him that set up a fourth-quarter tie-breaking field goal. Those are All-American plays by an All-American receiver.

HEY, HEY JOHNNY: I know that Lattimore and Jeffery and (maybe) Garcia and Jadeveon Clowney will get most of the awards recognition this season, but my goodness, just look at Allen. That man is playing hotter than a six-dollar pistol right now. Takeaways for touchdowns in each of his last three regular-season games, and every one a momentum-changer. Saturday's was jumping in front of a pass and taking it to the house for an eight-point lead, which became extremely crucial. I realize Allen is at a disadvantage because he plays a specialized defensive position, but c'mon - he makes plays. I'm in USC's sports information office, I'm pumping those stats out just as much as the other big guys (even though the SEC apparently doesn't listen when it comes to voting for SEC Defensive Player of the Week).

THE CLOWN PRINCE: Hearing the crowd chant his name afterward, Clowney again flashed that mega-watt smile. Why shouldn't he, after making a game-changing play? Clowney blitzed Aaron Murray in the fourth after USC had just taken a lead, spun him like a dance partner and the ball came loose for Ingram's defensive TD and a 10-point USC lead. He only had two tackles, but both were sacks (the first where he dropped arms and smacked Murray with his shoulder pads). He's here to do that, folks, and I could point out where he's from, but that would seem arrogant of me and the reputation of the town that produces top-quality athletes (and sportswriters) …

AMERICA! HAVE YOU HEARD? … (You get bonus points if you know that song lyric without Googling it, and can name the artist and the connection): Jay Wooten again had an outstanding day, being perfect on PATs and booting a 49-yard field goal with more than room to spare, which gave USC a brief fourth-quarter lead. It was his first field goal as a Gamecock, and he did what he could on kickoffs, kicking to the corner so Boykin couldn't get a good read (good luck) or pooching it to the up-back. I didn't know he had that much leg in him, but that FG sailed through with plenty of room to spare.

REMEMBER ME?: There were a whole lot of trick/big plays that worked in Saturday's game, but there were also some under-sung ones. How about USC's defense stiffening early and allowing just three field-goal attempts (one of which was shanked left?) How about Sharrod Golightly corralling Boykin on a 36-yard return (off a 70-yard Wooten kick) in the second quarter as the last line of defense? How about Marty Markett knocking down Boykin at the Georgia 21-yard-line after USC had taken a one-point lead? Plays like that win championships.

UNDER THE VISOR: Having been around him for seven years, I know Spurrier had to be preening when Ingram broke in that 68-yard touchdown off a fake punt. I can just hear him saying, "Yep … still got it." Especially when I was writing in my notebook, "Why in the HELL, with less than three minutes in the half and knowing that Georgia has the ball first in the second, does Lattimore not get one touch?"

THE SITUATION: Still seven SEC games to go, but USC has that all-important tiebreaker in the SEC East with what should be its stiffest competition for the trip to Atlanta. Don't matter how ugly it was, don't matter how bad it looked - a win is a win.

THINK ABOUT IT: Remember USC-Georgia 2009? USC-Georgia 2005? Any one of a huge number of games under Spurrier where USC was right there, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? The Gamecocks won a game they probably had no business winning. Call it luck or call it football, but they won a game where even the coach admitted they were out-played. Maybe the corner has been turned. For good.

THE BAD

THAT GUY: Rookie special-teams coach John Butler had to be thinking it. Every man on the cover team had to be thinking it. Every USC fan had to be thinking it. The thought? "Thank God Brandon Boykin is a senior." He had another seven returns for 184 yards on Saturday. It didn't matter how deep Wooten could boot it into the end zone, Boykin would take it out. Georgia was constantly starting in great field position, and USC couldn't match it due to the Bulldogs' 14th-year seniors constantly giving the team great field position on kickoffs and punts. I gave the defense an asterisk last week because it was playing such a gimmick offense, and I'll give the special teams one this week because Boykin and Branden Smith are both very, very good players. But man … giving up constant kick returns for long yardage is not good (ask Shane Beamer).

KLEENEX: I could give it a break against East Carolina because the Pirates run such a short passing game, but Murray has a good arm and likes to throw mid-range to downfield - and the Gamecocks, even with restored personnel in the secondary, still looked clueless. After Allen's pick-six, Murray played like a man possessed, and USC couldn't hope to cover it. Much of it was because Murray was hitting quick slants one or two seconds after the snap, some of it was because C.C. Whitlock was getting constantly out-guessed, out-run or out-jumped on the coverages. Johnson wasn't happy, and it's hard to blame him - he's the defensive head and while he's specifically in charge of linebackers, the cornerbacks aren't his concern and they're routinely getting torched. The Gamecocks are 2-0, and that's fine, but how many of these shootouts can a team win? There is too much raw talent in the secondary to be playing this badly.

BUSTED: Whether it was Georgia had better talent or whether it was because it was amped up playing for coach Mark Richt's supposed job, the Bulldogs' offensive and defensive lines dominated USC. Dominated. On offense, perhaps expected, since the Gamecocks' line is thin past the front five. On defense, with a significant advantage and knowing that Georgia was thin, inexcusable. Until Lattimore started bustin' loose in the fourth on that inside-zone, USC couldn't run for big yardage and surely couldn't throw. Games are won up front, and the Gamecocks didn't win on Saturday because of it. As I understand it, Clowney's blitz in the fourth-quarter was because a Georgia O-lineman didn't hear an audible.

MAKE SURE: A team gets three timeouts in a half. Three. Sometimes, it seemed as if Garcia and Spurrier thought this was basketball and a team got five. They threw away timeouts like peppermints at last call. Obviously, everything worked out, since USC had Lattimore and it didn't matter in the slightest that Georgia had all three of its timeouts on the possession after the onside kick. But c'mon. Second quarter, fourth-and-1, USC trailing 6-0 with the ball. Gamecocks going for it, call timeout to talk about it. Get back on the field, still going for it. Georgia calls timeout. Gamecocks re-huddle, still decide to go for it. Back on the field, USC calls ANOTHER timeout. At this point, I'm thinking I'm about to see the greatest play in college football history. Instead, the punting unit jogs on.

Fourth quarter, third-and-2, tie ballgame. Gamecocks call timeout, then give the ball to Lattimore for a loss of a yard. Fourth-and-3, another timeout. Not really sure why calling two plays in the huddle on the first timeout and checking down to the second if Garcia didn't like the alignment wouldn't work, but then he nailed Jeffery with a pretty 8-yard slant as Jeffery had a defender on his back. I realize it's easy for me to sit here and question when the only coaching I've done is several undefeated seasons on Tecmo Bowl, but man - it's like timeouts weren't even an option to be saved.

THE UGLY

LAUNDRY; A very clean game, with USC only penalized five times for 47 yards, but as it usually does with the Gamecocks, those penalties only seemed to happen with the Gamecocks in their own end zone. Rokevious Watkins false-started on a second down at USC's 22-yard-line. Somebody (play-by-play doesn't say) false-started on the 13, after Garcia had just had the daylights knocked out of him on a corner blitz for a sack. Nothing damaging, and every team gets penalized (Georgia suffered some crucial ones, like on the offside on the onside kick, and then committing third-down pass interference when USC was driving for the touchdown that made it 38-35 Gamecocks). But does it seem to anyone else that the Gamecocks only get flagged when they can least afford to?

MISFIRED: In two games, USC has completed 21 passes. That used to be a first half for Spurrier's teams. It seems the common denominator is throwing the ball high, and there was certainly plenty of it on the Gamecocks' first few series against Georgia. I heard from a guy that would know (being a former quarterback himself) that the sun was really bad going East to West in the first part of the game, and maybe it got in Garcia's eyes. Garcia didn't confirm that, saying he simply didn't throw the ball well. His receivers were leaping about as if they had jumping beans for lunch, and except for Jeffery, the former basketball star, most of them came up empty. It's extremely concerning that the Gamecocks can't seem to complete a string of passes and when they do, they can't find anybody other than Jeffery. Obviously, having Jeffery as the primary pass-catcher and Lattimore to anchor the ground assault is good, but you know Spurrier is aching to see all of his receivers catching balls.

LIGHTEN UP, FRANCIS: Checking our message boards after the game, I was appalled. I get it where you guys feel the need to vent during the game, which is why you post on the board instead of say, using one of those hand-strength toys to ease your tension. No, USC didn't look good last night. Spurrier said Georgia out-played the Gamecocks and he was 100 percent correct. But they still won, they're still 2-0 and they're still in first place in the SEC East.

What's more important - looking good and losing or looking bad and winning?

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