Saturday night's contest between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Vanderbilt Commodores was the perfect example of the "tale of two halves."
This game had a great start and a sluggish finish for the Gamecocks but they managed to still walk away with a 10-point victory over Vanderbilt.
In the beginning, South Carolina could not be stopped. The defense held their own on the Vanderbilt's opening possession forcing a three-and-out from the Commodores. From there, it was the beginning of the Connor Shaw show as South Carolina's starting quarterback was extremely strong from the opening snap.
Shaw completed three passes in the Gamecocks opening drive and also picked up 15 yards on three carries as South Carolina took an early lead 7-0. From there, the defense forced another punt from Vanderbilt that backed South Carolina up to the seven-yard line. Shaw would continue his assault on Vanderbilt on this series as he was 5-of-7 on this drive with a long pass play of 38 yards to Mike Davis, who finished the drive with a four-yard touchdown run.
A pattern developed as Vanderbilt had another short series with the Gamecocks regaining possession on the 24-yard line. However, Dylan Thompson would step in for Shaw to get some playing time and would play extremely well on this drive. Thompson was 5-of-6 on this drive and even rushed the ball from three yards out to give the Gamecocks a 21-0 lead.
Another forced punt gave Connor Shaw a chance to shine and he did. Shaw was 5-of-6 on this drive with a beautiful touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington for a 28-0 lead.
It looked like the Gamecocks would just roll over Vanderbilt on the way to a huge SEC victory.
That would not be the case.
Dylan Thompson would throw an interception that Vanderbilt would return to the one-yard line where they would eventually score a touchdown. After that, South Carolina is forced to punt for the first time and Vanderbilt worked their way into field goal range and they drilled a 54-yard field goal to bring the score to 28-10.
Halftime comes and goes with Carolina opening up the third quarter with a long sustaining drive to be capped off with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds from Connor Shaw. The next series, Jadeveon Clowney forces a fumble giving USC great field position. A stalled offense and a poor punt from Tyler Hull gives Vanderbilt great field position. They take advantage and eventually would drive down field to score behind the Wildcat formation with Wesley Tate to bring the score to 35-17 right after the start of the fourth quarter.
The following kickoff would be fumbled by Carolina's Shon Carson giving Vanderbilt short field yet again and they follow up with a touchdown pass from 19-yards out to bring Vanderbilt within 10 points after the two-point conversion. A short USC drive would follow and then Vanderbilt would be forced to punt. However, another special teams issue with TJ Gurley touching the football on the punt and allowing Vanderbilt to recover the ball. It would give Vanderbilt the ball back in great field position here and they would begin their drive to the endzone.
Vanderbilt moves the football down field but is thwarted in the end zone by Jimmy Legree, who picked a perfect time for an interception. After USC gained possession at the one-yard line, they would proceed to bring the ball down field behind the superstar of the night, Connor Shaw. Shaw's legs were key when South Carolina was backed up in their own end zone and Brandon Wilds would help run the clock down as the Gamecocks would eventually give up possession to Vanderbilt with :55 seconds left and not enough time for a miracle comeback by Vanderbilt.
It was a game full of the highest of highs in the first half that quickly turned into the lowest of lows. The range of emotions was on full blast at Williams-Brice Saturday night but that seems to be the case for the Gamecocks.
With that said, let's get to this week's Second Thoughts on the South Carolina/Vanderbilt game:
--Connor Shaw continues to just win games at Williams-Brice. This was likely his best overall performance as a Gamecock as he finished the game with 284 yards passing on 21-of-29 attempts with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also rushed the ball 19 times for 84 yards to lead the team in rushing as well. Shaw had the look of leader on Saturday night and it was clear he was in control from the moment he stepped onto the field.
Shaw was extremely accurate in this game as several passes were thrown with pinpoint precision. His two touchdown passes to Nick Jones and Bruce Ellington were things of beauty. Just watch for yourself.
You can't get any better than that as a quarterback and Shaw really was impressive on Saturday night. He ran the ball with ease and picked up some big gains on the ground when South Carolina needed him the most. The way he commanded the game and led South Carolina up and down the field should make you feel good about him moving forward. Sure, Dylan Thompson played well in his limited time on Saturday night too but Shaw is a proven leader and winner and he was the man South Carolina needed to control the game.
--How about that defense? They stepped up to the challenge early in this game and it was impressive. Vanderbilt's first five drives of the game ended in punts. The longest series they had was a total of six plays for 22 yards. Clearly, the defense was ready for the challenge.
There was a few miscommunications and breakdowns here in there. I feel like one particular instance was on Vanderbilt's touchdown after Shon Carson's fumble on the kickoff. Safety Brison Williams was screaming at his teammates to move over to the right side of the USC defense to be in better position to guard. While he's doing that, Vanderbilt snaps the ball and goes to the opposite side to find Wesley Tate who goes in virtually untouched for a 19-yard touchdown.
But overall, they held a solid offense to 268 yards total while picking up five sacks on the night, one interception and one forced fumble recovery. Jordan Matthews did pick up some yards on the Gamecocks secondary but everyone else was shut down and we saw life from the defensive line like this:
It was good to see this defense answer most of the challenges that were placed on them after last week's loss. Yeah, Vanderbilt is not Georgia but they've got some talent and represented a good challenge for this defense. They stepped up and were a force most of the night.
--Special Teams. Wow. It was not a good night for this crew at all. It's hard to start but it all started with Tyler Hull's 18-yard punt in the third quarter. This way-too-short punt was followed with an impressive drive by Vanderbilt that ended in a touchdown. Shon Carson would then fumble the kickoff return and Vanderbilt would score on the next play. Then there was the touched punt by TJ Gurley on accident that resulted in another turnover and another chance for Vanderbilt to bring this game closer.
Things were flowing just fine and then all of a sudden, they weren't. If you want to give anyone a failing grade from this game, it's special teams. Shon Carson struggled as kick returner against Vanderbilt and shouldn't have been the option against Vanderbilt either. He appears to run straight into his blockers with no cutbacks to try for extra yardage. And then he fumbled. I think it's safe to say his shot as the kick returner has ended. The punts by Hull in this game weren't quite as on par with where they were the first two weeks of the season but he does seem improved so maybe it just turned into an off night for him.
As far the miscue on the punt return attempt where Gurley touched the ball, he's got to be smarter than that. I know you're down there blocking trying to set up a lane for the returner but you have to pay attention to where the ball is. The returner also needs to be vocal and try to get his gunners to clear out. It sort of looked like Gurley failed to touch the ball but when he thought he did, everyone jumped in the pile and USC likely touched while scrambling for the football. A bad play that hurt the Gamecocks at the time but didn't kill them in the game.
Spurrier mentioned getting better players on special teams for Coach Joe Robinson. We'll see if that happens in two weeks.
--Mike Davis just continues to impress. He just looks so much faster than last season, and I even thought he was quick last season. However, this year he just appears to hit holes harder and faster and has more moves to try and gain extra yardage. He showcased a spin move on Saturday night to gain a few extra yards. He didn't break the 100-yard mark rushing but did finish with 144 total yards of offense with a touchdown. His game fits well in this offense and he's added another dimension to his offense with his elusive speed out of the backfield. He should continue to be a force each week for South Carolina.
--Bruce Ellington had career-highs in catches and receiving yards on Saturday night. He was the target on several occasions and made some big plays when he had the chance.
It's great to see this offense with this many passing threats in the secondary. You knew the potential was there but seeing Nick Jones, Shaq Roland and Bruce Ellington each have some big games here in the first three weeks should give fans hope that it will continue. Most people expected Ellington to put up big numbers in this offense but the emergence of Nick Jones has been something else. He only had one catch for 12 yards but it was a touchdown and he now has three touchdowns in two weeks. I believe he had three his entire career before that.
Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson have some weapons and they aren't their big, physical tight ends like Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson. If you can get those guys involved more, which they tried Saturday night, then this offense should put up big numbers for the next several weeks.
--It's time to address the thing that everyone is talking about - the student section. It's disappointing sitting on the West side of the stadium and watching the student section empty out when things are so good. I'll admit, I didn't have it bad as a student myself. My first two years at USC were the Outback Bowl years in 2000 and 2001 so things were looking up. I also suffered a 5-7 season in 2002 and a 6-5 season in 2004 that ended in a brawl in Clemson. It wasn't pretty at times but I certainly didn't want to leave that stadium. I can't imagine being a student right now, especially a junior or senior. In your years as a student, you've likely seen an SEC East division title and two straight 11-win seasons.
Yet, for some reason, by the third quarter more than half the students have left. You start losing that homefield advantage. I mean the fans that show up for Williams-Brice are great but the students are like the heartbeat of the stadium. They are the ones that can drive the cheers and fire up the rest of the crowd. If they aren't there to make noise, it certainly noticed. And it was Saturday night. Several players, recruits, fans and more called out students on social media.
Paying attention to the early exit and seeking solution ! Go Gamecocks ! #competetobegreat— Ray Tanner (@RayTannerSC) September 15, 2013
As you can see, Ray Tanner is on it already. Students are awesome and we all love them but can we not just hang out another hour or so and finish the game with the rest of us? You can party pretty much any day of the week. It's football and it happens about seven times a year at the great place we call "home." Just hang out a little while longer and I promise you'll enjoy yourself.
--All I can say is thank you Jimmy Legree. Your interception in the fourth quarter was huge and saved the day for South Carolina. If Vanderbilt scores, it's a three-point game and they've got all the momentum in our stadium. James Franklin is a great coach and his offense can move the ball. If not for Legree, this might have ended much differently.
Now, it would have been nice if you fell down in the end zone, but I'll take it.
It hurt to see this game finish with such a close score. The special teams miscues really made this game much closer than the stats indicate. South Carolina dominated on both sides of the football all night long. Defense did what they had to do and the offense put up the necessary points to win the game. I mean the defense held Vanderbilt to 2-of-12 on third-down conversions. That's quite impressive. The offense for the Gamecocks added 579 yards of total offense. You can't ask for a much better performance.
Still, it's a win regardless of how things played out and South Carolina came out doing exactly what they needed to do following last week's loss to Georgia. This game will restore the faith in this football, or at least it should, and give them some positive feelings heading into the upcoming bye week. It'll certainly be needed as the Gamecocks could use some rest early in this season with nagging injuries here and there.
South Carolina faces a tough road test against UCF who just defeated Penn State in Napa Valley. They have played good football in this early season and will be a test for the Gamecocks on the road down in Florida. South Carolina should win but if they don't come to play, the Knights will be upset-minded on Saturday, September 28th.
Enjoy the bye week folks. We all could use one.