Reaction to win shows maturity of program
It was not a historic comeback or a memorable final drive by North Carolina in Saturday's 21-15 triumph by South Carolina in Chapel Hill. It was a dose of reality without the taste of defeat.
"It was crazy," said sophomore defensive end Eric Norwood of a scoreless USC second half where the defense gave up two touchdown drives and several almost Tar Heel touchdowns. On the game's final play, two wide receivers – Kenny McKinley and Jared Cook - knocked down UNC quarterback T.J. Yates' desperation toss at the one yard line.
Instead of "The Drive" or "The Comeback " becoming part of a signature win in the Butch Davis era of North Carolina football lore, each "almost" could be a building block instead of an almost stumbling block in a Top Ten Gamecock season. Tar Heel fans and even players said after the game things like "they know we let it get away" and that UNC lost, not that USC won the game.
"It's hard to believe," commenting on how the game came down to one play, said the 6-5 Cook, who last played defense - safety – in high school. "Kenny (McKinley) hit it first, then as it was traveling down to the ground I knocked it down," recalled the sophomore.
The Gamecocks gained more than a "disappointing" win and tainted bragging rights in a Southern Border War. USC gained self perspective and may be showing the growing pains of a rising college football program.
Safety Emanuel Cook saw fellow safety Darian Stewart led off the field on the next to last play, an incompletion in the end zone, with veteran DB's Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson already out with injury and safety Chris Hampton having missed some second half playing time. "It was real scary at the end."
And if reliable Ryan Succopp's 48 yard field goal with :41 left is one foot to the left or spins forward after hitting the right upright and over the cross bar for three points, North Carolina fans aren't even having such conversations. Carolina would have had a 24-15 lead and kicking off instead of giving the ball to UNC at its 31 for the final drive. USC would still have the sobering second half performance to learn from.
Carolina defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix had more observations than explanations about the defense giving up two fourth quarter touchdown drives and then almost yielding a touchdown when Yates' pass sailed over the head of defensive back Mike West and then slipped through the hands of UNC receiver Greg Little with 6:00 remaining.
"They made a couple of plays, we missed a couple of tackles... I don't know if I can explain it other than we didn't play as well as in the first half," said Nix.
"The first half was looking pretty good for the defense," said Cook, who led USC with 9 tackles. "The second half was pretty shaky. Real shaky, so I felt bad about the second half." Cook also had two interceptions and a review of the second half shows it was the offense that gave Carolina a scare.
The Gamecocks ran just 11 offensive plays in the third quarter with three three-and-outs. Redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Smelley, who was 6-8 for 87 yards in the first quarter and 8-11 for 49 yards in the second quarter while throwing a career high three TD tosses in the first half was ineffective in the third quarter, completing only 1-3 passes for 7 yards. Head Coach Steve Spurrier admitted he got conservative as a play caller in the second half because his defense was playing so well, "but even when we tried to throw we couldn't hit anything either." Spurrier called the play of his offensive guards poor. "Somehow our guards still don't block worth a dang. It's hard calling plays."
The silver lining to the gorgeous afternoon with a deflating ending is the result – a win. And the chance to improve without the burden of an upset.
"We'll go back, we'll see where our mistakes are, we'll work them out and we'll get ready for Vanderbilt next week," said senior Cody Wells, who knocked North Carolina's dangerous punt and kick returner Brandon Tate out of the game in the second quarter.
The experience, according to Norwood, should help. "It's not like a loss, but at the same time you get to correct a lot of mistakes that could have potentially lost the game." Norwood, who constantly pressured and hurried Yates on pass plays, said consistency is the key. "I just think some times we are inconsistent at times. If we are gonna be a Top Ten team, that's something we've gotta correct."
"It's just on us," said Jared Cook. "We ‘ve gotta take it on our shoulders." The burden is lighter with a win rather than a loss to carry forward, but with all the Top Ten teams falling in the last few weeks, the possibility of another upset looms for Carolina. "It's gonna be real scary at the end of the season," said E. Cook.
What does USC take forward from this close win over a talented but young 2-5 team? Perhaps most important is the perspective on the game.
"It's one of those wins that doesn't feel like a win immediately after the game" said one USC official.
One long time USC fan was more than satisfied by the win despite the "almosts." "We've heard about changing the culture of the program," he reflected the next morning. "We got it. We feel bad about a win, and they (UNC) are happy in a loss."
That sounds like progress.
- Several of the 16 North Carolina natives on the Gamecock roster played extensively on Saturday. Starting senior center Web Brown and tight end Andy Boyd led a great run and pass blocking effort in the first half that led to 21 points. Freshman Chris Culliver returned two kicks for 40 yards but did not get an offensive touch.
- Other N.C. natives were not as effective. Defensive end Travian Robertson assisted on one tackle while Marque Hall was not credited with a tackle at all. Tight end Weslye Saunders dropped a pass inside the UNC 10 yard line that was almost intercepted. A replay was needed to confirm the UNC defender was out of bounds when he gained possession. Three plays later Carolina scored on a Smelley to Dion Lecorn 3 yard TD pass, the freshman Lecorn's first USC score. Succop missed his only field goal attempt.
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