Second Thoughts: Tennessee
Where did we go wrong?
Saturday ended up being the epitome of a "wasted" day. Not only did South Carolina falter on the road to Tennessee 23-21, several teams ahead of South Carolina in the rankings lost as well as SEC East counterparts Florida and Georgia. If South Carolina had beaten Tennessee on Saturday, they would have had been on the path towards an SEC East title, given the upcoming matchup with Missouri this weekend.
But alas, here we are.
South Carolina wasted a golden opportunity to make some noise by tanking in Knoxville. The Gamecocks offense struggled early and often, which we haven't seen all season long, and some questionable play-calling late in the game seemed to seal the deal. The Gamecock defense played a bit better than they have most of the season led by Jadeveon Clowney. It's clear the Clowney question marks of nagging injuries and commitment have been long cleared by his performance the last two weekends but he truly had himself quite the day on Saturday.
Still, this one falls on the offense and the man in charge and that's Steve Spurrier. He's certainly got to be second-guessing himself with some of his decisions on Saturday. The fourth quarter is usually the time to shine but Spurrier just didn't seem to pick what has been successful for him the last three years: run the football. There were times on Saturday where South Carolina could have taken control with a strong running game but instead it was three straight pass plays. Just not something you'd expect from the Head Ball Coach. And let's not forget the two timeouts.
Unfortunately, there are no redos and the Gamecocks blew it big time. This season could get away from them quick if they don't learn from Saturday's loss.
Now, let's take a look at some Second Thoughts from Saturday's loss to Tennessee:
-- With the ball in South Carolina's hands with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks decided they wanted to throw the football. Why? I'm not real sure. I think this is where you would want to get your offense in the hands of Mike Davis. He's got the speed and strength to pick up the yardage. I know Shaw was injured on second down in this series but it seems that Mike Davis should have been given the rock to see if he could control the game for South Carolina. The Gamecocks used to do that with Marcus Lattimore. I'm not sure why they weren't confident Mike Davis could do the same thing.
-- How big was the block in the back on Pharoh Cooper's punt return near the end of the third? The Gamecocks would have started with the ball at the Tennessee 45-yard line but instead were bumped back to the Gamecocks 45-yard line. South Carolina picked up a net 10 yards on the next three plays thanks to two solid Mike Davis runs and a fumble by Connor Shaw. Then the Gamecocks decided three straight pass plays would be the best idea. They eventually punted the ball but if they were to start this drive on the Tennessee side of the field, things could have went differently on this drive.
-- The Elliott Fry missed field goal attempt in the second quarter ended up being big. The kick was from the 27-yard line and the call before it on third down was a bit questionable. It was third and five and the Gamecocks ran the ball with Davis. I know Davis should have been given the ball later in the game, but at this moment, I think a pass play would have given the Gamecocks a better chance at picking up the first down. As it turns out, the distance was just about all Fry could handle and he pushed the kick to left and South Carolina missed out on three points before the half. Those three points were the difference in the game.
-- Mike Davis was one of a few Gamecocks who played great on Saturday. Another 100-yard effort from Davis brings his total to six 100-yard games this season. He also added another touchdown and is up to 10 rushing touchdowns on the season. Davis continues to be impressive and has really stepped to the forefront of the SEC running backs this year. There's not a running back I would want more on my team than Mike Davis right now.
-- It's third down and eight. South Carolina with the ball on their own 20-yard line. Dylan Thompson scrambles for six yards to bring up fourth and two. Tennessee calls a timeout with 2:55 left in the game. Then South Carolina lines up to go for it on fourth down but decides on a timeout. Coming out of the timeout, South Carolina again lines up and thinks about going for it. Instead, another timeout. Three timeouts in a row and the Head Ball Coach decides to punt.
I understand that he was hoping to see a defense where he could actually run a play there and take a chance but it seemed to take forever and the Gamecocks punted. Obviously, going back, it would have made sense to go for it because of the outcome. Even if they don't get it, Tennessee is likely in close proximity to score and if they do, there is a lot more time left on the clock and the Gamecocks would have been down no more than seven points with time on the clock and timeouts to use, if they weren't wasted. It's hard to second guess someone who has had the success like Steve Spurrier but this will be one of those times where people will always wonder "what if?"
-- I like what I'm seeing out of Damiere Byrd right now. Two straight weeks he's caught long touchdown passes where he has just flown past his defender for a wide open catch and run for the score. He's starting to turn into a great receiver and he's still got time to grow and develop. He'll be a playmaker for the Gamecocks all season long.
-- Tyler Hull really did no favors for South Carolina. His punts were weak as he averaged only 36.2 yards per punt against Tennessee. In a game where the offense struggled, especially in the first half, he needed to boot much longer punts in order to try and flip the field position for the Gamecocks. Tennessee had the advantage of a short field pretty much the entire first half thanks to those offensive struggles and poor Tyler Hull punts. He needs to up his game to help South Carolina out more in the coming weeks.
-- I don't know if the environment was the tough or not but this team seemed flustered more than normal to start the game. There was turnovers, miscommunication in getting in the plays and a general sloppiness that South Carolina hasn't played with at all this season. This game seemed doomed from the start and the Gamecocks did all they could to give it away in the first half. Luckily, they were able to come back in the second half as they generally do but if they had played with a sense of urgency at the beginning, we'd probably be talking about a lot of positives right now instead of those negatives.
There's not much else to say about this loss that hasn't been said. The Gamecocks blew it and wasted a great opportunity. Now, they'll hit the road one more time to take on Missouri, who jumped up to No. 5 this week, and their very impressive football team. This offense and defense seems to be legit and they've won seven straight games to start the season. They are in front of the SEC East by two games and could end up winning as many SEC East division titles in two years as South Carolina has in over 20.
Saturday's game could go a long way towards setting the tone for the rest of the year. It's almost a must win game for the Gamecocks. They've worked too hard in order to be in the position where they can win 10 games every season and be in the mix for SEC division titles. Tennessee is likely on the verge of going up under Butch Jones and Georgia and Florida will always be tough. South Carolina can't allow Missouri to jump above them this early in their tenure in the SEC so winning Saturday will be much needed for the Gamecocks.
We will likely see Dylan Thompson start for the first time this season with Connor Shaw's leg injury. Thompson will get the keys to drive this Gamecock offense. He's a gunslinger and a quarterback Spurrier can rally behind but it's a different approach with Thompson under center. Hopefully, this week will be him preparing to play and this will give him ample time to work out the kinks before he gets going on Saturday. He'll need Mike Davis to be used early and often to help set the tone for South Carolina.
If South Carolina is able to pull out the victory on Saturday, this season isn't quite over. They could still possible work their way into the SEC Championship Game but they'll need help. At this point, the Gamecocks just need to focus on winning and righting the ship.
It all starts with Missouri this week.