Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Season report card: South Carolina
By Edward Aschoff
The Gamecocks lost their starting quarterback and running back, but still managed to get 10 wins for only the second time in school history:
South Carolina's offense was hard to watch for most of the year. There were times when the Gamecocks really moved the ball down field, but had a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot with mistakes that cost them points. They scored less than 20 points in four SEC games, including 13 to Auburn, which ranked near the bottom of the SEC in every major defensive category. The Gamecocks entered the year with one of the best one-two punches in running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. They even had a seasoned quarterback in Stephen Garcia. But Garcia's troubles on and off the field caught up with him at the beginning of the year. Garcia passed for just 844 yards with four touchdowns and nine interceptions before being dismissed from the program after Week 6. Shortly after, Lattimore went down with a season-ending knee injury. Before his injury, Lattimore was among the nation's best with 818 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Jeffery rarely looked like his old self, grabbing just 614 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, and South Carolina never found a consistent secondary receiver. It did, however, find replacements in quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Brandon Wilds. Shaw struggled here and there, especially throwing, but recorded just one loss as a starter, while Wilds, who was a redshirt candidate, rushed for 100-plus yards in three of his five starts. The Gamecocks' inconsistency hurt, as South Carolina averaged 25 points in conference games, but led the league with 21 turnovers in league play.
All it took was some quiet encouragement from defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson after the Navy game to jump start this unit. Players acknowledged that their play during the first three games wasn't up to par, but after that, South Carolina's defense was one of the best in the country. Up front, the Gamecocks got a ton of production out of veterans Melvin Ingram, an All-American, and Travian Robertson, and freshmen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles blossomed. Antonio Allen quietly had one of the most productive seasons in the league, recording 81 tackles, three interceptions, defended five passes and scored two touchdowns. Opposing backfields were constantly harassed, as South Carolina totaled 25 sacks and was sixth in the SEC in rushing defense. Against the pass, the Gamecocks were even better, ranking second nationally and tied for first in the SEC in interceptions (18) and takeaways (30). South Carolina currently ranks fourth nationally in total defense and is allowing 4.2 yards per play.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
The Gamecocks were rarely ever a threat in the kicking game. South Carolina was last in the league in kickoff coverage, with a net average of 40.1 yards. Jay Wooten also recorded just six touchbacks on his kicks. While Ace Sanders scored on a punt return, the Gamecocks have averaged just 7.6 yards per punt return. Wooten missed six total kicks (three field goals and extra points), while Joey Scribner-Howard was near the bottom of the SEC in punting, averaging 38.9 yards per punt. He pinned 10 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Steve Spurrier led a South Carolina team to 10 wins for only the second time in school history even after losing his starting quarterback and one of the nation's best running backs. Spurrier made the right adjustments, put a lot of trust in Wilds and slowly turned Shaw into more of the right passer for his offense. It also helped that Johnson did a tremendous job with his defense. Yes, the Gamecocks were loaded with athletes on that side of the ball, but he helped create a new mentality after the first three games of the season. For a second straight year, South Carolina was a legit SEC East contender.