How will USC respond to overtime loss?
A shame. Gamecock fans can add their own adjective between these words when thinking or talking about USC's lost opportunity at Tennessee Saturday.
Does this game mean the Carolina program is like the past, in a new present, or building for a future with success never seen by the Gamecocks in football?
Anyone who has watched Carolina football teams over the past 25 years will look at the 17-6 Vanderbilt loss at home and the Vol's 27-24 overtime squeaker in Knoxville and be tempted to revert to old habits and give old reactions. After losing to a supposedly superior opponent with the upset seemingly within the Gamecocks' grasp, USC players and fans, and sometimes coaches, would present a frustrated and stubborn demeanor. The talk was predictable: A blown call - or series of calls – lost the game. One lucky play and it would have been different result. If a key player(s) had not been injured, it would have been a different game.
Each argument was just that, something to say in defiance of defeat because of a dejected look toward the future. Future seasons should be a much better reality instead of a wish if Head Coach Steve Spurrier is as right about his team as he was about, well, his team.
Before the Vanderbilt game, he said Carolina could lose to Vanderbilt, or any one, unless his players played very well. The lackluster loss indicated they didn't listen or they did not believe him.
The Tennessee loss still has Carolina fans wondering: "what if?" The words of Head Coach Steve Spurrier last Tuesday as he looked toward Tennessee are instructive.
"This is not the best team we're ever going to have here," he said. "Hopefully our fans know that, too. Our big recruiting class was last year, so we're still in the building process. We're not in the final stages. This is not our final best team ever. I hope everyone understands that. We expect to have another strong recruiting class this year, to go with last year's."
The last three times USC played in Knoxville, where it had never won until 2005, have resulted in two overtime losses and a 16-15 win. Not even Florida can say that. The 2005 run also gave Carolina its first ever win over Florida. The 2007 season could have a more satisfying winning streak that would include a win instead of a loss against Clemson.
How does one judge this team while anxiously waiting to see the final three games? USC lost an opportunity to gain control of the SEC East race and fell to a long shot as quickly as the offense that looked like it might not see the end zone for full game again suddenly scored at will, three touchdowns within 9:00 minutes of second half play. It failed to score a touchdown to take the victory in the fourth quarter when Captain Munnerlyn intercepted an Erick Ainge pass at the UT 30.
And that is a shame, a wasted opportunity. The Gamecocks had a chance to close out a memorable comeback win. Victory seemed lost to some fans in the stands by USC:
1) Failing to run Cory Boyd, Cory Boyd, and then some Cory Boyd at the tired Tennessee defense after Munnerlyn's interception. USC tried to fool the Volunteers by lining up in the "I" with Boyd behind fullback Lannard Stafford and then throwing a pass that resulted in a holding penalty. The penalty stalled what should have been a game wining touchdown drive on the drive's first play. Mitchell heaved a third down pass toward the goal line that was intercepted. True, Ryan Succop hit the 49 yard field goal with 1:54 left for the 24-21 lead, but poor kickoff coverage then allowed a huge UT return and Tennessee drove to kick the game tying field goal.
2) Failing to run Cory Boyd on the first play on offense in overtime when all USC needed was a tying filed goal and could seemingly push the tired Vol defense back into the end zone for the wining touchdown. Instead Spurrier called for Boyd to go in motion and come back toward the quarterback at the snap for a slip screen. Quarterback Blake Mitchell bobbled the snap- twice – before getting it to Boyd, who tried to make a big play by running backwards from the converging Tennessee defenders. The result was a 5 yard loss and force Carolina to throw twice more and gain just 7 yards, 2 net, and watched Succop miss a 40 yarder and walk off as dejected losers. Insiders say UT was confused and USC had the perfect play call that would have gone for a touchdown. The Vol Network announcers sounded like they agreed. If so, for the second time in the second half seniors Mitchell and center Web Brown did not connect cleanly on a shotgun snap. The little things are sometimes crucial. A penalty, a 7 yard reception and an incompletion and Carolina had to hope Succop could hit a 40 yard filed goal to keep the comeback alive. It was wide right.
Boyd had a career high 160 yards on the ground but seemed slowed somewhat in the fourth quarter, whether by fatigue or a slight case of the cramps which sidelined Munnerlyn and wide receiver Kenny McKinley, who also had a great night and now has caught a pass in 30 straight games, fourth on the USC consecutive pass reception list.
Gamecock fans may have mixed thoughts on what this two game losing streak means in this 6-3 season. The season is in a state of flux with three games making a huge difference in the perception of a "successful" season. In past seasons Gamecock fans would say just getting to overtime shows the program's potential. In 2007, getting to overtime at Tennessee after trailing 21-0 supports Spurrier's call for patience, or at least understanding. The best is yet to come, or he is not Steve Spurrier. And if some question his play calling, suggest that Spurrier is thinking like he has his old Florida players and not the USC roster, they need only look at the three USC touchdown marches. No second guessing there. The play calling worked beautifully. Throw in the impressive opening drive of the third quarter that ended at the UT four yard line on downs – with a seemingly clear pass interference call that was not called, and the first 20–25 minutes of the second half were full of meaningful highlight material. USC made up for the first missed scoring opportunity by holding UT and quickly making a short TD drive for the Gamecock first touchdown since the second quarter of the UNC game on October 13. It was the last three possessions that spoiled a comeback to rival the 32-27 win in 1968 over UNC after trailing 27-3.
Now Carolina travels to Arkansas, where the Gamecocks have one win in Fayetteville (2005) and one in Little Rock (1997) in seven games. But USC fans' thoughts go farther, to games with Florida and Clemson. Bowl eligible already, a bowl bid seems assured barring three more losses, which would make five in a row. Two of Lou Holtz' last three USC teams suffered three straight losses to close out the season without the magical sixth win.
"We're still building a football program," Spurrier said last week. But what would be progress over the next three games?
A 1-2 record against Tennessee must be balanced out by a 2-1 record against Clemson, which means a win at home on November 24. Maybe a loss to the Tigers and going 2-1 versus Florida alone in his first three seasons at USC would be proof enough that the program has changed and is on the unmistakable rise. Falling to 1-2 against all three teams making up the "Orange Crush" and finishing 7-5, or even 6-6 with a loss at Arkansas, would point Carolina fans back to the past. In the past, the near misses were symbolic of a team missing its best chance to get a signature win. Gamecock fans want to believe they are headed toward the future Spurrier sees, of always being in the position to win against the SEC elite, finishing with winning SEC records each year and even wining the SEC East title.
It would be a shame for Spurrier, the players he is attracting and the loyal Gamecock fans and alumni to not experience the dream seasons Spurrier sees ahead. The loss to Tennessee will either be part of the prologue of the coming success or part of too many similar chapters of "almost" in the history of the Gamecocks on the gridiron.
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