Roanoke's Around the SEC: USC Week

One win can heal a lot of wounds. Even if it is an ugly win. And even if it is a narrow one when you are favored by 17.

A glass half-empty kind of guy could find a lot to complain about regarding our 34-31 nail-biter over UMass. We opened the game still trying to pocket pass, only now with a true freshman QB at the helm. We played the first half with those same soft zone coverages that spelled doom versus Ole Miss and Temple. We quickly found ourselves down 14-0 in part due to a sneaky UMass fake punt from midfield. We had not seen a punt since August – which might explain our special teams being completely pantsed on this play. To be fair, though, some praise is in order - it would have been easy to fall apart at that low-point, but instead we showed character and heart in righting the ship.

There was plenty to be encouraged about when the final kick tottered wide. First, we found our QB. Granted, he had been sitting right under our noses all along, but Patton Robinette carried a shell-shocked team on his back in this game and showed a spark and poise that had been missing all season. With Robinette under center this year, we are up 41-24. With anyone else under center, we are down 85-3. Sometimes statistics lie, but in this case they just wallop you over the head.

More importantly, our staff also showed an ability to call plays tailored to Robinette’s skill set. This was particularly true in a beautiful drive at the end of the first half which included roll-outs, wildcat, option, read option and great use of the clock. The o-line continues to run block impressively – and Ralph Webb continues to churn up yardage on the ground. Webb recorded his first 100 yard game Saturday. The pass blocking also was better, perhaps buoyed by Robinette’s mobility. Roll-outs worked consistently, and the moving pocket kept UMass’ pass rush at bay. Several receivers also began to distinguish themselves: C.J. Duncan saved the game with a brilliant late grab (stealing an interception out of a defender’s hands) near the goal line. Latevius Rayford, Steven Scheu and Kris Kentera contributed nice catches, too.

The offense – which entered the game without a TD – showed genuine signs of life. Again, a negativist might point out that after the second quarter flurry of creativity, the second half play-calling reverted somewhat to form and we scored only one offensive touchdown after the break. Thankfully, it was enough. And the successful two-point conversion was a thing of beauty.

On Mrs. Roanoke’s side of the family there is a cautionary tale of a child who, after shunning lima beans for months, was required to eat one lima bean before leaving the dinner table. The recalcitrant urchin spent the entire evening at the table staring down a small pile of offending beans before finally slumping into dreamland and being carried off to bed. I recall this story as I watch our offensive braintrust’s dogged efforts to mold us into a pocket passing West Coast attack. I respect grit and determination. I respect believing in one’s own philosophy. But we stared at limas the entire game against Ole Miss and had nothing to show for it. We burned Wade Freebeck’s redshirt against UMass in the same noble quest. At some point, you have to eat the lima bean.

Once the staff finally succumbed to recognizing “dual threat” plays against UMass, Robinette and the offense executed them well. These plays are a necessity with our current talent, and we need to keep them in the mix. Freebeck has a gun for an arm – and Robinette was noticeably short on several open long-balls. Indications are the staff intends to keep both packages in play – and, frankly, this does give opposing defenses a lot to think about. But we need to pattern our play-calls to the talent, which right now means more roll-outs, wildcat and read option – less pocket passing with no escape route.

Our defense and special teams scored two TDs against UMass – and had another one narrowly called back. The depth on this side of the ball continues to amaze. Taylor, Butler, Woestmann and Bowden all got banged up early in this game – Azubike and Burks were shaken up later. The replacements stepped in and produced mightily: Jonathan Wynn and Jay Woods were particularly impressive in relief. There are true and redshirt freshmen playing quality minutes up and down this defense. The front seven will be very good soon – and it will be deep. Steven Weatherly stood out on defense this week – his blocked punt was a game changer. Caleb Azubike’s sacks also helped the cause.

Our soft zone cushions continue to haunt us. Admittedly, we start an all-new secondary – and growing pains are to be expected. After staking UMass to a double digit lead, we seemed to recognize that the eight yard cushions were counter-productive: and we did better when we brought our corners up. As with any “haunting,” in the final minute we dropped deep again and almost gakked away the game. The half-empty guy might annoyingly remind us at this juncture that we beat a winless team thanks largely to a missed chip shot field goal that was entirely beyond our control. Still, I saw progress in our decision to tighten the cushions and I was encouraged by the increase in blitz packages. Next we need to work on disguising our blitzes a little better. UMass saw the telegraphed blitzes and burned us with screens. The Head Ball Coach is a master of abusing a telegraphed defense: I hope our staff does not learn this the hard way.

This week, it would be unrealistic to expect our defense to shut down the Gamecocks’ potent attack – last year, in fact, South Carolina’s offense clicked on all cylinders against us. The Gamecocks scored touchdowns on their first four possessions as they rolled to 31 first downs and almost 600 yards of offense. We need to be a bit patient with our young defense this week – they will have their hands full. But we should expect improvement. Most notably, we have to work on third down stops which have been the squad’s glaring weakness. Opponents have converted over 40% of their third downs against us. Dylan Thompson is a genuine threat at qb – both with the long ball and the short – and Carolina boasts a tandem of solid backs in Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds. The left side of the Gamecock's offensive line, anchored by Corey Robinson, has been bulldozing opponents.

For those seeking encouragement, we do catch South Carolina in a trap setting – between the emotional win over Georgia and an impending showdown with Missouri. It is also the Gamecock’s first trip on the road this season. We, meanwhile, should be a little loose for the first time all year with a win under our belts. Often, there is a fine line between playing very good football and being simply ordinary – and confidence can be that difference. Just look at Carolina – a team that got absolutely dismantled on national TV on opening night. After gritting out an ugly win against East Carolina, the Gamecocks looked like a completely new team when Georgia arrived in Columbia last weekend. I am hoping we will make the same kind of improvement coming off our first win. We will need to – just to be competitive.

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Around the Conference there are several key games this week. Florida visits Tuscaloosa in the biggest one. In the wake of the Gators’ triple overtime win over Kentucky we are left to wonder if Florida looked past the Wildcats to the Tide, or whether the Gators have slipped significantly under Will Muschamp’s tenure? We will try to ignore the third option: that UK, on a bye preparing for us, is much improved. Florida broke a five game SEC losing streak with the win – but looked middle-of-the-pack. Look for Bama to make the seat hotter for Muschamp this week. In a West match-up, Mississippi State and LSU tussle in Baton Rouge. The loser of this battle of unbeatens will be dealt a crippling blow within the division. Les Miles is home and 9-0 against MSU since arriving at LSU – but this is MSU’s best team in a long time. LSU is giving 10 points – I think they will win by less.

Out of conference tilts are highlighted by Auburn’s Thursday night visit to Kansas State. Many pundits have circled this game as a chance for the Big 12 to prove the SEC is over-rated. Perhaps K State was looking ahead to Auburn when they almost tripped in their last outing against Iowa State? Strange things happen in these Thursday night games, but Auburn seems to be loaded. Auburn is a 9-point favorite and the SEC’s out-of-conference record presently stands at 27-2. Poor Troy faces Angry Georgia this week. Mizzou follows up an impressive pounding of UCF by hosting an Indiana squad that is coming off a loss to Bowling Green. A&M takes on SMU – the insider tip of the week: don’t bet on the Ponies. Arkansas takes on another quality opponent in Northern Illinois – the Razorbacks are greatly improved, but still saddled with the toughest division in all of college football. They need to win while they can – and they should take care of business again this week. UT, UK and Ole Miss enjoy byes.

Our staff will get a further dose of SEC reality with the arrival of Steve Spurrier’s crew. Meanwhile, Kentucky will be gearing up for our visit in two weeks. The 40-0 drubbing we administered on our last trip to Lexington seems far off now – but I suspect the Wildcats remember it quite vividly.

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