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October 30, 2011

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Tennessee



NO. 14 SOUTH CAROLINA 14, TENNESSEE 3

THE GOOD

ROOKIE: Well, hello, Brandon Wilds. Gamecock Nation and every recruiting guru in the Southeast owes you a heartfelt apology. Can't function without a heavy offensive line, huh? Better suited as a fullback, huh? Jay Graham deserved a raise as soon as he stepped off the plane from Knoxville back home - why? Because he was about the only guy in the state who believed that Wilds was exactly what he said he was - a gifted tailback who could produce if given the chance. USC needed a back to pace the offense with Marcus Lattimore shelved, and despite the rather large Under Armour cleats that Lattimore vacated, Wilds stuck his 18-year-old peds in them and took off. He got the ball for a 9-yard catch-and-run on the Gamecocks' first offensive play, and he kept going. Wilds ended with 137 yards in what is sure to be yet another SEC Player of the Week honor, and also added 31 yards on three carries. Yes, he fumbled once, but no harm done. What was far more impressive was how Wilds almost never got stood up at the line. He was churning through Tennessee orange like most people eat popcorn.

CONTRO-OL: Connor Shaw will not be Andrew Luck, the next No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Shaw will not be Steve Taneyhill, flinging barbs, bullet passes and flipping a blonde mullet that is still legendary nearly 20 years later. Shaw will not be Tim Tebow, the gold standard for college quarterbacks this era. And that is perfectly fine. Shaw doesn't have to be a superstar to win games, he just has to control the game. In a sense, it's exactly what makes him not Stephen Garcia - Garcia could often dazzle the crowd, but could also try too many times to turn nothing into something. Shaw mostly stays away from that, working in the playbook and playing smart. He doesn't throw out of his range, he isn't afraid to run (several times) and take a lick in the middle of the field and he is doing better and better at commanding his teammates' respect. He made two mistakes on Saturday - one, an interception that was tipped, but was thrown short to a receiver with a defender in front of him, and two, running out of bounds for a loss instead of chucking the ball into the third row. But they didn't come back to hurt the Gamecocks. Shaw never rushed, got ahead of himself or panicked. This is where being a coach's son comes in handy.

STILL THE HBC: As aggravating as USC's offense is to watch sometimes, there are those other times where you shake your head, chide yourself for criticizing and realize that yes, Steve Spurrier can still pull out the perfect play at the perfect time. Happened again on Saturday, as USC was driving downfield and trying to equal or negate a 3-0 UT lead. Facing fourth-and-1, USC was going for it, and Shaw lined up under center. He took the snap, and with everybody in Neyland Stadium expecting a run or a sneak, he rolled right. Wilds blocked his man as Shaw rolled, and just as Gamecock Nation slapped its collective head at such a stupid play, Shaw lobbed the pass. And there was Rory "Buster" Anderson, so open he could have fair-caught it, standing right there. He reeled in the pass and trotted into the end zone, easy six, as everyone looked at the visor on the sideline and thought that the old man isn't quite so old just yet. Perfect play - UT stacked the box and Shaw drew the defenders into him, letting Anderson delay, then circle behind everybody. Didn't have to be a perfect pass, because Anderson could adjust to go get it. Outstanding call, big-time play, needed touchdown.

STICKY FINGERS: Another game, another couple of interceptions. USC's secondary now has 16 picks for the season, and is drawing raves for most of them coming at just the right time. No better illustration than Saturday. D.J. Swearinger picked off a pass for the second straight game, and did it on second-and-goal from the 2-yard-line. Then Stephon Gilmore again stuck it to Justin Worley by intercepting a pass into the end zone, immediately after Tennessee had recovered Wilds' fumble. It was a major problem a couple of years ago, where USC could always tip a ball, but it would either get tipped to another receiver or fall incomplete instead of in a Gamecock's hands. Now, USC is on enemy passes like white on rice in a glass of milk on a paper plate in a snowstorm.

V FOR VICTORY: I once had a baseball coach tell me that getting all emotionally hyped up for a baseball game just couldn't work, the theory being that emotions took away the concentration on fundamentals. "This ain't football," he said. I often think about that when watching football, and see a lot of talented players who bring a lot to the table, but don't necessarily play mean. With Victor Hampton, I see both. Hampton is a very gifted football player, with off-the-chart instincts, but he also plays aggressively, living for the extra hit. Hampton had two tackles and two pass breakups against Tennessee, one an interception that he just dropped, but made his presence felt early. On a long incomplete into the end zone, Hampton was covering, watched the ball sail out and looked up just in time to see a brick wall in front of him. Hampton hit it hard and sat down even harder, but shook his head and got back on the field for the next play. Word has it is that Hampton got back up and started talking trash to the wall. Gotta have that attitude at this level.

ANOTHER NOTCH: It's one of those things where a program wants to brag about it, but maybe not - other programs take these kinds of marks for granted. At USC, there's simply not a lot of great tradition to compare it to, though, so anything is good. USC has now beaten Tennessee twice in a row for the first time in its history, and only the second time on the road. Spurrier has both of those in his coffer. It just seems like every time the Gamecocks win these days, there's a little nugget like that to point to.

SCOREBOARD: More for the fans, because the players realize they can't depend on other teams helping them out. Bad news when Georgia beat Florida, meaning the Bulldogs aren't going away and the Arkansas game next week won't be a potential SEC East clincher. Great news when some other score was finalized after USC wrapped up its win - came out of Atlanta. As one USC fan I know said, "I like the weekends where we sweep best. That's where the Gamecocks win and those other guys lose." I'll let you guess who the "other guys" are.

CHANNELING LEFTY: Lefty Gomez once said, "I'd rather be lucky than good." Every team has its runs of good and bad luck, but it seems like after four lifetimes of "only at USC" plays, the Gamecocks are getting breaks whenever they need them this season. Consider that Tennessee threw two interceptions, each right after USC had just turned the ball over and each in deep USC territory. Consider that Worley had Da'Rick Rogers streaking down the sideline, put the ball in his hands, and Rogers dropped it. Consider that as the Volunteers went to Matt Simms in the fourth quarter, trying to get back in the game, he picked up two straight fourth-down conversions before facing fourth-and-1, and somehow decided to pass instead of running and saw it fall incomplete. Consider that UT came out for the second-half kickoff and tried to onside kick - the Vols were offside and the kick landed out-of-bounds.

THE PLAY: The Gamecocks had their share of good plays, but the one that saved the day went a little under the radar. Prentiss Waggner intercepted and raced downfield, destined for the end zone, until a locomotive came out of nowhere and slammed him to the turf from behind. It was redshirt freshman tackle Cody Gibson, who never gave up on the pick and lumbered after Waggner as he sprinted. That gave the Vols a possession on the 2, which became Swearinger's interception. The big man's been struggling since he was put in the starting lineup, but he came up big there.



THE BAD

THE DOILY BRIGADE: USC's offensive line deserves a lot of credit for opening several holds for Wilds and Shaw, but on pass plays, it was again getting worked over pretty good. Rokevious Watkins and Gibson were allowing jailbreaks all night, Shaw taking three sacks and getting hit on several more plays. Gibson did save the day with his tackle, true, but he was getting run past so many other times that it was difficult to grade his entire game as an A. One could tell that Shaw had been told - if you feel even the slightest bit of pressure, run. You know it's vexing to Spurrier and to Alshon Jeffery that the only people who have found a way to take Jeffery out of the game are his own teammates. But pass protection is so poor that the deep ball is pretty much out of the question.

HANDS: Ace Sanders does a marvelous job on punt return, despite getting zero blocking and never having a chance to return a ball. I suppose it's the law of averages that he was bound to drop one catch, and Saturday was it. USC forces a three-and-out, punt sails high, Sanders just boots it and UT recovers. Didn't happen again, but the one time gave the Volunteers three quick points. Which leads to the next point.

RALLY CAPS: The Gamecocks always have them on. For the past 11 games, USC has not scored first. It's good news, sort of, because USC is 8-3 in those games. But man, how nice would it be to see the Gamecocks get a score first and let the other team play catch-up for a change? I daresay that constantly playing from behind caught up with another in-state team this weekend.



THE UGLY

SICKLY: Alright, here's the good news, as pointed out by my pal Andy Demetra - USC does not have Lattimore, did not have Bruce Ellington but for a handful of plays and Jeffery got 17 receiving yards. Yet, the Gamecocks still won. The problem is, Arkansas, Florida and Clemson each have the capability of scoring a lot of points, and USC is not able to match that right now. Spurrier cracked that the Gamecocks are only going to get two touchdowns per game, and he wasn't joking that much. Wilds and Shaw are doing good jobs, but the passing game remains stuck in neutral with Jeffery a non-factor. Damiere Byrd is being typecast in the reverse-run role, and Sanders has disappeared. Yes, the "Wildcat" had to be shelved for this game due to Ellington's hamstring, but will it make that much difference if it's broken out against one of these high-octane offenses?

SIGH …: Gamecocks going for it on fourth down, they know what they're going to call - timeout. Only 10 men on the field.

Eighth game of the season. Come on.

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