Second Thoughts - South Carolina/Central Florida
If there is one place you should trust, maybe it's Vegas.
The betting gurus had the spread for the Gamecocks against Central Florida at around seven points or so in this contest between a Top 15 team and a team that was undefeated and just outside the Top 25.
Clearly they knew what they were doing and felt confident this would be a close game.
As it turns out, it was.
South Carolina fell behind early, lost their starting quarterback, and didn't look like the offense we've seen at all this season until the start of the third quarter.
Steve Spurrier said heading into halftime that the Gamecocks would need to run the ball more in the second half. He had the answer all along. Spurrier opened the third quarter with four straight running plays with the fourth being a 53-yard touchdown run by Mike Davis to put the Gamecocks on the board and bring some life into this offense.
The running game has been a strength behind Mike Davis all season long and letting Davis take over in the second half was the answer the Gamecocks needed. Davis continued to pound the ball down the field on the ground and Dylan Thompson made some plays through the air. Before you knew it, the Gamecocks were mounting a 28-10 lead in the fourth quarter and basically had the look of a potential big win in hand.
Enter South Carolina's defense.
Just like the Vanderbilt game, the Gamecocks failed to finish late in the game and allowed some very big plays to Central Florida that kept them in this game. A 73-yard touchdown pass play brought Central Florida within 10 points in the fourth quarter. South Carolina punted on it's next possession and would intercept Central Florida's next possession to go on a long, sustained drive down to the four-yard line. Davis, looking for his fourth touchdown, ran up the middle into a host of UCF defenders and fumbled the ball. A touchdown there puts the lead at 35-18 and likely would keep UCF at bay. Instead, Central Florida hits another big pass play that's followed by a touchdown. It's a three-point game with 1:31 left on the clock. UCF lines up for the ensuing onside kick and it goes right to Bruce Ellington, who returns to the onside kick to the UCF 15-yard line and the Gamecocks would run out the remainder of the clock.
Not quite the contest you expected from the Gamecocks but it's still a win and they move on to the next one. There were some casualties with Connor Shaw injuring his throwing shoulder and Brandon Wilds injuring his left elbow. Both players are expected to be out for several weeks but South Carolina has been here before.
With that said, let's take a look at this week's Second Thoughts from the Central Florida game:
-- Without Mike Davis, where is South Carolina in this game? It's clear the impact he has on this football team and you can see what he can do with the ball once its in his hands. He's got the speed for a bigger back but has the ability to keep his legs turning. He's hard to take down and usually can make a positive gain on nearly every running play. Brandon Wilds is good but Mike Davis is on another level. His second touchdown run of the day shows a little bit of it all with his vision, speed, quickness and ability to make the right cuts got him in the end zone with ease.
South Carolina is lucky to have a running back like this on the roster and we know he'll be a workhorse back moving forward for South Carolina.
-- Speaking of Mike Davis, what was with the decision to not run the ball with him in the first half? He carried the ball only five times in the first half as opposed to 21 times in the second half. It's clear South Carolina could make a push up front but Steve Spurrier seemed adamant that he would beat UCF through the air. Shaw's injury got the Gamecocks out of sync on offense early and Thompson's abilities are better suited in the passing game so I see why he went to the air for much of the first half. But it wasn't working and South Carolina need to control the ball more and Mike Davis clearly was the right call. It's a good thing Spurrier took his own advice at halftime to run the ball more because it paid off quickly in the second half.
-- It's clear that there are some issues on defense. What those issues are could be a multitude of things but leadership seems to be a recurring theme in the first weeks of the season. Last year there was a ton of veterans at key positions who all knew their roles. This year, there isn't one player that seems to want to step forward and be the vocal man of this defense. Victor Hampton comes close with his attitude but you would think someone like Jadeveon Clowney or Chaz Sutton would step forward and lead. The Gamecocks need someone like Clowney to step up and play the leader role to show this team when there needs to be a sense of urgency. South Carolina's offense had an 18-point in the fourth quarter against UCF. What happens? They score in a few plays thanks to a long pass play. The mishaps in the secondary continue to cause concerns and they've allowed some pretty big mistakes so far this season.
-- Special teams. There's not much to say here. Victor Hampton had a failed punt return in his return to the role he had at the start of the season. He caught the ball going backward and nearly ended up in the end zone as he was tackled but the ball was spotted at the three-yard line. There was a pretty big gain on a punt return by UCF that was saved by a Mason Zandi tackle. A touchdown there on the return would have put the score within five points with just over seven and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter.
This is an area that was so good last season but has completely fallen apart this year. It's clear Ace Sanders is missed on punt returns. Hampton has the ability but he continues to make ill-advised decisions on punt returns that puts the Gamecocks in bad position. The only few positives have been the kickers, Elliott Fry and Tyler Hull. Both players have done well in their efforts so far this year but they'll need some help from other members of the special teams if they want to keep South Carolina on track for a big season.
-- Turnovers came and they were good! Three interceptions by the Gamecocks certainly had some big moments along the way. Victor Hampton's interception in the second quarter was a huge moment and definitely changed the momentum of the game with UCF up 10-0 at that point. Getting UCF to turn the ball over was something that hadn't happened much this season. South Carolina gained some advantages thanks to those miscues and gave the offense more chances. It showed too as South Carolina ran 80 total plays to UCF's 62. The more chances you have the ball on offense, the better and the Gamecocks defense did just that this past Saturday.
-- A little shoutout to Gerald Dixon is much needed. He seemed to be all over the place on Saturday and recovered a fumble by Bortles on a sack play that the Gamecocks recovered. South Carolina hasn't seen much production out of its defensive ends outside of Clowney and Sutton so this likely bodes well for Dixon moving forward.
-- I don't understand the targeting rule. Well, I understand it but it needs to be reviewed and updated for next season. Brison Williams was called for a targeting penalty in this game, which includes a 15-yard penalty and automatic ejection. Here's the clip:
The play was reviewed to see if the ejection was warranted and of course it wasn't. The ejection was overturned and Williams remained in the game. The interesting thing here is that the penalty sticks. Does that make sense? If you can review the ejection and clearly see that the hit was legal, why should the penatly stay? I have no problem with the rule and protecting the safety of the players. It's what needs to happen. I'm just saying that there should be a review of the rule and maybe, just maybe, allow for the penalty to be overturned as well if the hit wasn't targeting and helmet-to-helmet.
-- While the defense has its faults, it should be noted that they shut down a potential star in Storm Johnson. The Gamecocks held him to just 64 yards and contained the UCF run game all afternoon. Johnson came in averaging over 100 yards a game before this one so limiting them on the ground does deserve some praise.
I hope this is the last we see of games like this. It's not that we should be afraid of the competition. It's the fact that there is nothing to gain from this game. I said it three years ago and will say it again. South Carolina didn't gain anything from playing in this game and actually lost a few key players to injuries for multiple weeks. Central Florida is a good, solid program but it's not an ACC school, or Big Ten school, or another power conference school that you want to play. Since South Carolina didn't win this game big, they actually fell in the AP Poll following the game. That's what happens when you win a close game against a team that you should defeat.
I liked South Carolina's answer in the second half to the 10-point lead they gave to UCF in the first half. The running game opened up the offense in the second half to some big yardarge and they were able to score 28 straight points before stalling out at the end. Just think if the Gamecocks were clicking in the first half what this game could have been like that. It wouldn't have been close at all.
Now that this game is over, it's time to get back on the SEC for the next several weeks as the upcoming stretch could be huge for South Carolina. A home game against Kentucky is next followed by road games against Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. South Carolina should be the favorite in all three but that Arkansas game appears deadly for the Gamecocks. These are winnable games and could help get the Gamecocks to a 7-1 mark before the hit the final four games of the season at home.
The SEC East appears to be a lost cause here for South Carolina but maybe a BCS bowl bid will be in the cards if they keep winning. Each week, South Carolina needs to treat the game like some sort of playoff. You lose and you're out. Winning double-digit games again, getting to a BCS bowl game, beating Clemson for the fifth straight season, these are all big goals the team should have moving forward.
For that to happen, they've got to improve and there's plenty to work on.
For now, we'll just enjoy the win before getting back to work on Monday.
There's never a dull moment in the college football season.