FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – South Carolina had its first complete game of the season with a 52-7 win Saturday at Arkansas. This week’s edition of the Gamecocks Grades reflects just how dominant USC was in its largest SEC blowout against a team not named Kentucky.
A little history: South Carolina’s 52 points against Arkansas was its most against a fellow SEC opponent – not named Kentucky – since its 65-39 shellacking of Mississippi State on Oct. 14, 1995.
The combination of quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Mike Davis are among the SEC’s best backfield duos, joining Alabama’s AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Jeremy Hill. No quarterback in the conference has been more efficient than Shaw. Meanwhile, Davis continues to put up “video game” numbers – as offensive guard A.J. Cann called it – with SEC-leading 742 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in six games. A couple facts about Davis:
- He is one of three BCS running backs to rank among the nation’s top 10 in rushing yards and touchdowns, joining Bishop Sankey of Washington and Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin.
- Among running backs with at least 100 carries, Davis’ 6.68 yards per carry average ranks third behind Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah (7.16) and Western Kentucky’s Antonio Andrews (7.11).
But the reason South Carolina’s offense receives an A for Saturday’s performance is simpler, more basic. The Gamecocks needed to string together a four-quarter performance, no slow start or trailing off at the end. Their points by quarter Saturday was an astounding 10-14-14-14. That’ll do every time.
Don’t kid yourself. When Arkansas marched its opening drive down the heart of South Carolina’s defense, you thought, “Here we go again.” Hard to blame you. The Gamecocks defense has been a different unit than last season, filled with youngsters and shoddy fundamentals. But that defense changed in Fayetteville, starting with Victor Hampton’s interception on the second series.
While the offense continued to impress, the defense was the real story Saturday. USC allowed 248 yards and just seven first downs. The defense was on the field for only 37 plays, 13 in the second half. If the defense continues to play like that, there isn’t a team in the SEC the Gamecocks can’t beat.
And let’s not overlook Jadeveon Clowney’s leadership. No, he’s not a petulant, spoiled superstar. The junior defensive end pulled his teammates aside after the first drive, helped get the group refocused moving forward. A player separated from the group wouldn’t make the effort.
Special teams: A
Quick. Point out the big special teams gaffe from Saturday. … Give up?
For the first time in a long time, South Carolina’s special teams were rock solid. Take away a kickoff out of bounds – a minor offense in a blowout – there were no game-changing mistakes. USC even got a 36-yard punt return from freshman Pharoh Cooper, who was sharp enough in his first start at returner to keep his job next week. As bad as the defense has been at times, special teams has been USC’s biggest weakness in 2013. Perhaps Saturday was the turning point.
Last week, Steve Spurrier defended his decision to insert backup quarterback Dylan Thompson early in games. On Saturday, he let Shaw play without interruption until being pulled early in the fourth quarter, once the game became a blowout. Nothing against Thompson, who will take the reins at season’s end and instantly be one of the SEC’s better quarterbacks, but letting Shaw play exclusively while the game is competitive is the right decision.
With the season in mid-October, there are only two quarterbacks in the nation with 10 touchdowns passes and no interceptions. One is Shaw. The other is Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota. Just a little perspective for you. Shaw has been that good. Given the chance to play without interruption, the senior was unstoppable behind center Saturday.
One other positive note about the coaching: Give Spurrier and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward credit for not being complacent with the defense. No, the unit was not playing well enough in its past three games, especially the secondary. The coaches made personnel moves, including yanking junior cornerback Victor Hampton’s starting job. It paid off big. Hampton made the biggest play of the game with his momentum-changing interception. Sometimes players need a wakeup call. When it works, it’s called great coaching.
I mean, it was USC’s biggest SEC blowout against a team not named Kentucky. Hard to think how a team could play any better than the Gamecocks did in Fayetteville.
Add the historical back drop – USC had won only two previous games in Fayetteville going back to 1992 – and Saturday’s blowout becomes even more amazing.
Add the changing SEC East race – Georgia losing to Missouri, pulling USC smack dab in the middle of the action – and it was one of the best days for the program in a long time.
Now on to Knoxville for a noon kickoff against Tennessee.