Random Notes from the South Carolina game.
* With TE Gerald Harris and FB Andy Hartmann out with injuries, the coaches had to become a little more creative in the run game. They did so by sometimes shifting to an unbalanced line with LT Brad Sowell moving to TE on the right side and by sometimes inserting Bobby Massie at RT and moving RT John Jerry out to TE. They also inserted OL Mark Jean-Louis at FB at times. "Without Gearld and Andy, we had to create some different looks to put our best players out there to see what we could muster in the run game," said OL Coach Mike Markuson. "When you do that, you risk some missed assignments, which we had, but we also created some confusion at times." On an unbalanced look early in the game, it was Sowell who sealed off the defensive end and sprung Brandon Bolden for a long TD run that was called back. The Rebels also ran a few misdirection plays which they had not run in the first two games. Some of it worked, some of it didn't, but the thought process behind the moves was sound.
* Many will point to Bolden's run being called back as one of the keys to the game, and that would be a correct observation, but another huge setback in the contest took place with roughly five minutes to go in the second quarter. Thanks to a superb punt return by Marshay Green, the Rebs were in business at the Gamecock 31, but could not move the ball. The Rebs lined up for what appeared to be a field goal, but the fake was on. The right side opened up like I-55 to Memphis and it appeared FB Derrick Davis, who took a shuffle pass from holder Justin Sparks, was going to get a big gainer, if not score. A backside defender, however, reached out at the last instant and tripped up Derrick short of the first down. Ball over to USC, no points after starting on the SC 31. The crowd ramped up even more and the Gamecocks took the momentum, which had started to slip away, into the locker room with them. Great call which caught USC offguard, but a backside defender had other ideas. Huge play.
* It is mind-boggling an SEC ref cannot see a flagrant, personal-foul variety, facemask right in front of him. Everyone but him saw Dexter McCluster's head get snapped around on a critical third-and 2 on the Rebs' next-to-last possession. If called, the penalty gives the Rebs, who had all the momentum at the time, the ball on the USC 44 with a fresh set of downs. Instead, they opted to punt on fourth-and-one with 6:28 to play. Pathetic reffing, period. What will happen? Nothing. And that's why many who follow SEC football believe the officiating is not up to par to the caliber of play - not even close. Is it sad the best football conference in America also has some of the worst officials? You betcha.
* On a night when the defense clearly did enough to win and the offense didn't - simple as that if you are boiling things down to the lowest common denominator - there was no finger-pointing or separation on the team afterward. DE Kentrell Lockett said it best. "The offense has bailed us out lots of times. It was our turn to bail them out and we didn't do enough," he said. "They had a rough night and we didn't have their backs good enough. We are all in this together." That may sound like a stock answer that was rehearsed. If you feel that way, you don't know Lockett. He says what's on his mind, no holds barred. It's good to see that kind of togetherness in the face of adversity (the press) immediately afterward.
* Some are making too much of Sowell's postgame comment about being glad the high ranking is over. You'd have to put yourself in his shoes and witness how it all went down to judge. Bradley - after his first SEC start ever - was being rapid-fire grilled by the media over the performance of USC's man-child Eric Norwood, who beat Bradley to the punch some during the game. His frustration level was extremely high and he blurted out his now infamous quote. Trust me, he did not mean it the way it came out. And surely the adults among us are bright enough to figure that out. As soon as he said it, I knew he would take criticism for it, but I understood what he was trying to say. In short, he meant he just wanted to get back to the drawing board and practice field and get back to playing ball without distractions. Bradley Sowell would have given up an appendage, so to speak, to win that game, and anyone who thinks differently is dead wrong. And anyone publicly questioning his grit or courage, I would suggest not saying it to his face. If there are cowards in this deal, it is those anonymously calling Sowell one behind the comfort of a keyboard or on an arm's-length call-in show.
* In the wake of a loss, there are always legitimate questions to be asked. In this one, why not get Dexter McCluster the ball earlier and more often? That is a question the coaches deliberate on and second-guess themselves on all the time. Their conclusion goes back to risk/reward and Dexter's long-term value to the team. Right or wrong, they do not feel they can give him the ball 20-25 times a game from the tailback slot and him survive the season without injury. They would rather pick their spots and have him all year - theoretically - than lose him from over use. Question that thinking if you like, but having seen Dex his whole career - and seen him get beaten up pretty good at times - it's hard to argue with that decision. When the game was on the line, the right man had the ball, the way it should be. More importantly, he "lives" to be that guy in the next game as well.
* Standing next to 15-year NFL veteran Wesley Walls on the sidelines, I got a better understanding of how good Norwood is, as if I couldn't see for myself. "He's as good as I have seen on this level," said Wesley, more than once. "If he's not a Top 5 pick, someone is evaluating him incorrectly." That declaration came after the Rebs put not one, not two, but three men on Norwood and he still caused havoc. Hats off to the kid. He will make a lot of tackles and offensive linemen look bad this year if he stays healthy. Besides maybe Dexter, No. 40 for the other guys was the best player on the field, although I would love to see a healthy Greg Hardy match skills with him.
* When the protection of the QB was breaking down, the passing game had no rhythm and nothing seemed to be going right, the coaching staff put the game in the hands and on the back of No. 22. As has been the case with other No. 22s in our history - Deuce McAllister and Dou Innocent - the 2009 version responded. The team came up short, but Dexter's heroics almost pulled one out of the fire.
* To not say more about the Rebel defense would be a travesty. They were dominant in the second half. USC scored after a Rebel turnover on a short field to defend, but beyond that, the Gamecocks did not scratch in the fourth quarter with the outcome on the line. DC Tyrone Nix was pleased with the improvement and thrilled with the effort the players are giving, but he thinks their best is still around the corner. Yes, there were a couple of missed tackles and a couple of missed assignments, but they are much better than they were in week one and with a bullet, Nix hopes and believes.
* The flip side bottom line is the Rebs did not capitalize on their opportunities offensively. The offense is still not in a rhythm. They weren't in the opener, they weren't really in the groove in the second game and they certainly didn't have a rhythmic or consistent look to them when the competition got stiffer in Columbia. Back to the drawing board. The outcome would probably not be as frustrating if the capability for doing better was not there, but we all know it is. The fans, the coaches and the players know improvement on offense is a must if this is going to be a banner season. Where to start? Certainly the offensive line has to perform better, but until they do, they need some help. By that, we mean not asking them to protect for four seconds. QB Jevan Snead has to get rid of the ball quicker while the OL is developing. Take what they give you, Jevan, take what they give you. He'll get it right - he's too good not to.
* Kudos to freshman Punter Tyler Campbell, who saw his first collegiate action against USC and responded by averaging over 43 yards a punt in five tries, including two inside the USC 20. To come through in that environment tells you he's going to be special. . . TB Rodney Scott got his first action, and carry, and it did not turn out as well as expected with a loss, but at least he didn't have the fate of his buddy, frosh TB Tim Simon, who got in on special teams and is out for the season after a knee injury.
* Nobody wants to hear someone does something better than they do, but I can't say I have ever seen a better game atmosphere than the USC fans put on for their team in that game. Not at Florida, not at Alabama, not at LSU, and I have been doing this for three decades. They were raucous, rowdy and unruly. Just the way you want your fans to be, especially the student body. The electricity they put off for their team could literally be felt in high voltage. Our game atmosphere has gotten much better in the past few years and is nowhere near "bad," but if you weren't in Columbia Thursday night, you may have missed the best. A lot of schools could take lessons from those rabid roosters.
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