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October 10, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Alabama

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and as of Saturday afternoon, he was wearing garnet and black.

NO. 12 SOUTH CAROLINA 35, NO. 1 ALABAMA 21
(Incredible, ain't it?)

THE GOOD
(There's so many!)

Amazing I have run out of ways to describe Alshon Jeffery. I think the most original I came up with was "inhuman," as in, "not from this planet." The man can catch anything, which really helps out his quarterback, because the instruction is simply, "throw it up there." I am deadly serious when I suggest to USC that it start a Heisman Trophy campaign, not that I think he'll definitely win it, but in that it will surely help Jeffery's profile for this year and next year (Note: The boss suggested the slogan, "Alshon Jeffery: So Good He Ought To Be From Rock Hill). Just pick a circus catch that Jeffery made against the Crimson Tide -- the 45-yarder where he was being held all the way down the sideline, caught it with one hand, pinned it against his shoulder pad, spun around and lost the defender and sprinted to the 6-yard-line was my favorite. Seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns ought to keep Jeffery in the top of the major national categories, and he's been entrenched at the top of the offensive weapons at USC's disposal. And having watched all of them, I can say with no regret that Jeffery is better than Sidney Rice, Sterling Sharpe and Kenny McKinley.

Fist in the mouth How about USC's offensive line? After being manhandled at Auburn, the line blew Alabama back (and that's not easy to do with Marcell Dareus sitting there), giving Stephen Garcia all the room he needed to find his receivers and open holes for Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore ended with 93 yards and three touchdowns (one passing) while Garcia didn't post record numbers, but had his best career game (17-of-20 for 201 yards, three TDs and a bad-luck pick that bounced off Jeffery's hands). All credit to Shawn Elliott and his bunch, who aren't nearly the most talented guys in the world but are playing tough football. I especially loved it when USC was facing third-and-10 from the Alabama 45 and Garcia had been sacked two plays earlier. Darrington Sentimore jumped offsides and while T.J. Johnson didn't snap the ball, tackle Hutch Eckerson, knowing that the play was technically going, popped out of his stance and shoved Sentimore back. I didn't need binoculars to read what Eckerson was saying.

Take what you're given Ellis Johnson deserved a game ball for not trying to force his defense onto Alabama's game-planning. He waited for the Crimson Tide to show its cards and then reacted. Most everybody thought Alabama would go with its bread and butter -- Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson -- on offense, but Greg McElroy came out throwing and never really stopped. The two backs only carried 17 times for 64 yards while McElroy threw 34 passes. While Ingram and Richardson were each difficult to bring down, at least USC knew who was getting the ball and in what direction he would be running (unlike Auburn). Then, when McElroy decided to pass, Johnson was content to drop most of his players into coverage and stay away from the pass-rush, since it was getting beaten so badly in USC's other games this year. McElroy had all day to throw, but often couldn't find anybody to throw to, and by the time he made up his mind to start running, a defender had usually figured out that the receivers were well downfield and not options, so he was given free rein to rush McElroy. The quarterback hit the turf seven times, two sacks by Stephon Gilmore, two by Melvin Ingram and 1.5 by Rodney Paulk.

The Fade (2) As soon as that pass went up in the first quarter, I thought back to last year's Alabama game and thought, "This AGAIN? What are you thinking?" Then Jeffery caught it and shut me up. As mentioned before, all Garcia is asked to do is throw it up and let Jeffery go get it, and that's what happened. Somehow, that joker caught it on the sideline, spun and got a foot into the end zone before he tumbled out. The second touchdown was that same kind of arching throw, but Jeffery beat his man and caught it in stride.

B-Madd You have to love it when a senior, knowing he probably won't get many carries because of the emergence of a freshman star, comes in stone-cold and immediately delivers. The muscleman from Anderson did just that. Two weeks after he came in against Auburn and almost separated that dude's chin from his mouth, Brian Maddox was at it again. While Lattimore nursed a numb hand, Maddox carried five times for 28 yards. The most impressive was when he got around left end and just bulldozed Mark Barron for a 17-yard gain. Those shoulders could carry around the Statue of Liberty and he uses them to his advantage.

Opportunity As Steve Spurrier said afterward, it was fate that might lead to the school's third win over a No. 1 team in the same year, but the Gamecocks had to help fate out. They did that by taking advantage of every Alabama mistake. McElroy was hit and lost the ball, Travian Robertson dove on the fumble and recovered. Luther Davis was flagged for late-hitting Garcia, giving USC 15 free yards; the Gamecocks scored two plays later. Those turned into a 21-3 advantage and Alabama seemed to tighten -- poor Jeremy Shelley missed a field goal and a PAT (although the hold was bad) while Ed Stinson dropped a wide-open pass on a faked field goal (and it looked like Tony Straughter had a good angle to bring him down before the first-down marker). Championship teams don't make plays like that.

Ball Coach You can see the swagger returning, Spurrier laughing and one-lining his way through his postgame press conference. Easily his biggest win at USC and perhaps the biggest regular-season victory of his storied career, Spurrier out-coached Nick Saban by constantly switching the playbook. Expect a run? Pass. Expect a pass? Delayed run. The weirdest stat from the game was that USC ran the exact number of plays (57) that it did against Auburn. And Spurrier didn't panic when Garcia committed a horrible mistake, sticking with his most experienced QB and trusting him to get the team back on track. Spurrier went for it on fourth-and-short, knowing it might be the game, and proved that he was playing to win, not playing not to lose. Mojo's rising, boys and girls.

Woot Woot I gave him a game ball as well because his contributions were a bit lost in the shuffle, but were nonetheless huge. Jay Wooten was knocking balls into the end zone and taking Richardson and Julio Jones, two very dangerous returners, out of the equation. Yes, there were no touchbacks, but that was because Richardson was fielding the balls in the end zone and bringing them out. Joey Scribner-Howard and Spencer Lanning combined for three kickoffs, but Wooten had four and delivered, knocking them high and to the left hash to give the coverage team room to operate.

AND ALSO

Leader Garcia led the team. He picked it back up after his own mistake put it in a hole and never hesitated. It's never been about his talent, it's been about his leadership qualities, and Saturday proved that yes, he can be the one to lead the Gamecocks.

Mature Lattimore runs into the end zone for his first touchdown and before his second foot crosses the goal line, he's already flipping the ball to the referee. He didn't have to do the King Tut Butt Strut beforehand. Also, on a fourth-and-1 where USC had to run, Garcia kept, Lattimore saw the play develop, turned back and knocked out the lead would-be tackler.

Sacrifice On the option pitch to Lattimore for the fourth TD, first of all, credit to Garcia for waiting for the perfect moment to pitch it. Second, much credit to Patrick DiMarco for going low and leveling the defender who had keyed on Lattimore and was rushing to stop him.

THE BAD

WTH? Yeah, call me a jerk. I'm the one who asked Garcia in the postgame what the devil he was thinking on that safety (somebody had to do it). It's OK now because everything turned out fine, but that kind of stuff ... well, remember what I said earlier about championship teams making plays? That ain't one of them. Garcia said he thought there might be a guy riding his back so the best option was just get rid of it, instead of turning, trying to throw and possibly losing seven points instead of two. Spurrier pointed out (correctly) that if Garcia gets tackled while he's running to the end zone, it's still going to be two points. It wasn't the score so much as the momentum -- 11 seconds into the half, Alabama reversed USC's magic. It was like there was a primer being read that said, "Want to screw up? Here's how." But Garcia picked himself and the team back up. It's funny now, but it surely wasn't at the time.

Again? Garcia had one of those plays for which he's become known -- he'll be one of the gutsiest kids on the field, but sometimes, you have to sacrifice guts for brains. Many times, Garcia doesn't do that. On a third-and-short in the third quarter, Garcia called his own number, took off on a leap 2 yards from the line of scrimmage and tried to hurdle the pile. Didn't work. And he had the ball in his outside arm, extended away from his body like he was trying to drop an elbow off the top rope. Yes, he held on, but I've see that ball pop loose far too many times. Cannot keep doing that.

Busted The defense played a marvelous game, and as goes on in all games, there was really only one bad play. Unfortunately here, it gave Alabama a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the lead to seven points. McElroy found Darius Hanks streaking downfield and nailed him in stride for a 51-yard scoring scamper. The blame was on DeVonte Holloman who didn't cover his man. Hanks went out as part of a stacked group, and D.J. Swearinger had to pick one to cover. He got his man but Hanks ran right past Stephon Gilmore, who was looking around expecting Holloman to be there. Everything turned out fine, but it was the one bad play the defense had.

THE UGLY
(Really had to look for these)

Kenny I really hate it for Kenny Miles. Spurrier has repeated several times he wants to get Miles some touches, but when you only have 57 plays for two straight games, it's hard to do. Lattimore has earned his touches and when he went out, Maddox has played so well that he was the automatic choice for No. 2. Miles played on special teams on Saturday, but got no offensive carries. There's only one ball, and after Jarvis Giles transferred, the question seemed to be if perhaps Miles would. Miles flatly said he would not leave and had no thoughts at any time about leaving, but you have to wonder if that thought will stay the same should his touches stay the same. I'm hoping, for Miles' sake because he deserves it, that USC can get into some comfortable games and get Miles into the game. Ace Sanders got his touches Saturday, but Miles didn't.

The Road As I said yesterday, and I'm not saying it will happen, but it's at times like these where you think of USC's 10 straight wins over Kentucky and think, "Will this be the year the other shoe drops?" USC has a target on itself now and the Wildcats know it. I'm sure Vanderbilt and Tennessee, which represent the next two teams after Kentucky, are all reading how USC should win its next three games. Just got to handle it.

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