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December 7, 2011

South Carolina received a hefty tailwind heading into its nine-day exam break.

A sigh of relief.

There's no salve quite like a victory over a bitter rival (or in Bruce Ellington's case, two victories in eight days - more on that later). After a 2-5 start left them "discouraged but not disappointed," the Gamecocks picked up a momentum-reversing win over Clemson Sunday, rallying past the Tigers 58-55 at Littlejohn Coliseum. With nine days off for exams, and six straight home games ahead, the Gamecocks picked a timely place to galvanize themselves. Whether they use the Clemson game as a launching pad for better days is up to them.

On to our other notes at the quarter-pole of the season:

Lock Down The Arc: Through halftime of the Clemson game, the Gamecocks had been victimized by uncanny three-point shooting by opponents. Carolina entered Sunday's game ranked 340th in the nation (out of 344) in 3-point FG% defense (45.0%). When the Tigers drained 5 of 11 first-half three-pointers (45.5%), the Gamecocks surely felt some déjà vu.

But on the strength of their matchup 2-3 zone, the Gamecocks finally got the unkind bounces they were owed. The Tigers, unable to create in space or cash in on long backtaps, missed all seven of their three-point attempts in the 2nd half. Without a three-pointer to stunt their rally, the Gamecocks chewed up a 7-point halftime deficit to win 58-55.

Effective three-point defense helped the Gamecocks overcome a 7-point 2nd-half deficit against Clemson.

The Gamecocks have played a more aggressive, matchup 2-3 zone this year, where the top two defenders are spaced higher and tighter than a conventional 2-3. Head coach Darrin Horn said the zone sunk its claws into Clemson's backcourt players, particularly leading scorers Andre Young and Tanner Smith.

"When you're [man-to-man] like [Clemson] is, it's easy for me to call a play from the sideline and get the ball to who I want," Horn told me afterwards. "But when you play the defense we're playing, with the switching man-to-man and zone, it was hard for them to just go get the ball to Andre Young or get it inside to Devin Booker."

Another example of the confusion South Carolina's zone can create: on a play against Kentucky Wesleyan, KWC players argued until there was :12 left on the shot clock over whether they should run their man-to-man or zone offense. The Clemson game -- in particular the 2nd half -- offered the sharpest example yet of the defense's effectiveness.

Rejection Redux: After graduating all-time blocks leader Sam Muldrow, most figured the Gamecocks' blocked shots numbers would tailed off. While it's early, the Gamecocks have stepped nicely into Muldrow's shadow. Through 8 games, Carolina's Block Percentage (% of an opponents' FGA that are blocked) is slightly ahead of last year's pace.

The Gamecocks have collectively made up for the absence of all-time blocks leader Sam Muldrow.

YearBlock %NCAA Rank

Those numbers will almost certainly taper off once SEC play arrives. Still, it's an impressive start for a team that lost its top "menace merchant" from last year.

Speaking of... Muldrow currently ranks 2nd in the A1 League (Greece) with 1.8 blocks/game.

Making Them Count: They may not have consummated every comeback, but the Gamecocks haven't left points on the free-throw line in the 2nd half. Did you know: the Gamecocks have shot 72.6% from the foul line in the 2nd half (53-73 FT), compared to 58.4% in the 1st half (31-53 FT). Last year, South Carolina converted only 63.0% of its 2nd-half free throws.

Year1st Half FT%2nd Half FT%

It's also a reversal from last season, when the Gamecocks shot better from the foul line in the 1st half.

Impressive. Unprecedented? In an eight-day span, sophomore Bruce Ellington went from cleats to high-tops to immortality. On November 26, Ellington had 3 catches for 79 yards and a touchdown in a 34-13 win over Clemson at Williams-Brice Stadium. By Monday, he had rejoined the basketball team for its 6 a.m. practice. On Sunday, Ellington recorded his second win over the Tigers, contributing 9 points and 2 assists in a 58-55 win at Littlejohn Coliseum.

Nice work Bruce. Try doing it two more times.

Ellington's double-dip prompted a flurry of tweets to our Twitter page (@GamecockRadio), asking for the last time a Gamecock beat Clemson in football and basketball in the same season. My research yielded this: the last person to play football and basketball at South Carolina was John "Lip" Latorre. In addition to starring at defensive end from 1950-52 for Rex Enright, Latorre played three games for head coach Frank Johnson in the 1950-51 basketball season, scoring a grand total of 6 points.

Bruce Ellington.

Even more impressive is the story of former Gamecock Len Ekimoff, who beat Clemson in both football and basketball in three straight years. An Erie, Pa., native, Ekimoff lettered in basketball in 1947, 1948, and 1950, while also doubling as Rex Enright's starting center from 1946-49. In the three years that he played both sports, Ekimoff never lost to Clemson in nine tries.

  • October 24, 1946 - Beat Clemson 26-14 (Football)
  • January 25, 1947 - Beat Clemson 73-39 (Basketball)
  • February 8, 1947 - Beat Clemson 73-55 (Basketball)
  • October 23, 1947 - Beat Clemson 21-19 (Football)
  • January 21, 1948 - Beat Clemson 73-54 (Basketball)
  • February 6, 1948 - Beat Clemson 59-57 (Basketball)
  • Did not play basketball in 1948-1949
  • October 20, 1949 - Beat Clemson 27-13 (Football)
  • January 21, 1950 - Beat Clemson 66-56 (Basketball)
  • February 3, 1950 - Beat Clemson 43-40 (Basketball)

    Ekimoff only averaged 2.2 ppg in 76 career basketball games. Regardless, he makes a compelling case as one of the greatest Clemson killers of all time.

    And Finally.... Gamecock coaches first started recruiting R.J. Slawson heavily at an AAU Tournament in Las Vegas. Back in the desert, Slawson reinforced why the Gamecocks were so enamored with the tarantula-armed forward from Ft. Dorchester HS. Highlighted by his 13-point, 14-rebound, 4-block effort against North Carolina, Slawson earned All-Tournament honors at the Las Vegas Invitational. So what cool trinket does a 20 year-old man in a Las Vegas Tournament receive for his performance?

    A wooden clock.

    "I'll probably give it to my Mom," R.J. said afterwards.

    Check back next week for a fresh look at the stats, scoops, stories, and anecdotes we've unearthed as we follow the Gamecocks in 2011-12.

    December 2, 2011

    An unimaginable set of circumstances gave former Gamecock video coordinator Brian Edelstein his first head coaching job. What he has done since is more remarkable.

    Watch. Rewind. Stop. Click.

    The life of a video coordinator follows a tedious, painstaking rhythm. Life isn't measured by hands on a clock. It's measured by clips, and edits, and copies-and-pastes. Players move silently across computer screens, every detail charted and catalogued, until the game is broken down to its most basic, molecular parts. In the hierarchy of a basketball office, it's grunt work at its bleary-eyed essence.

    Watch. Rewind. Stop. Click. Over the course of a season, that routine is repeated tens of thousands of times. But every now and then, something will interrupt that sequence. A frame will stand out, catch the eye, arrest one's attention, until the person watching can't shake it from his memory.

    A year ago, Brian Edelstein was breaking down film as South Carolina's Video Coordinator for Men's Basketball.

    This year, he's the interim head coach at the College of Eastern Utah, a decorated junior college in Price, Utah.

    How he arrived there is marked by an image he won't forget.

    The Grind Begins

    Brian Edelstein served as South Carolina's Video Coordinator for Men's Basketball during the 2010-11 season.

    The coaching bug burrowed in Edelstein early. As a freshman at Foothill College, he moonlighted as a high school assistant. By age 20, the San Carlos, Calif., native filled in as interim head coach for a pair of games. He arrived at South Carolina in 2010 from Kent State, where he had served as a graduate assistant. His duties in Columbia included shooting practice, logging plays, and editing film of opponents - "breakdowns," in hoops parlance. His vintage, 1972 Chevelle became an all-hours fixture in the practice facility parking lot. Inside, Edelstein grinded away, working a job that often gives people their first break into college coaching.

    "Brian was a really hard worker. He was very conscientious with everything that he did. He really picked up on things quickly, very intelligent, and was a guy that took great pride in doing his job well," Gamecocks head coach Darrin Horn said.

    In July, an assistant at Kent State phoned Edelstein with a tip. His friend, Brad Barton, the new head coach at the College of Eastern Utah, was looking for an assistant.

    "I wanted to get back on the west coast. It's in the premier junior college conference in the country. I knew we had a chance to compete for an NJCAA title, and recruit at the highest junior-college level. Being able to be a first assistant was a big part of it, too," Edelstein said of his interest.

    Edelstein interviewed over the phone. Three days shy of his 25th birthday, Barton offered him the job. With Horn's congratulations, he headed to Eastern Utah, sight unseen.

    At an elevation of 5,957 feet, Price, Utah (population 8,400) sits in a picturesque swath of mining country an hour south of Provo. Its centerpiece, the College of Eastern Utah, has enjoyed a gilded basketball tradition. NCAA Tournament legend Harold "The Show" Arceneaux starred for the Golden Eagles. So did NBA players Eddie Gill and Ime Udoka, as well as 2010 NBA Draft pick Darington Hobson.

    When Edelstein arrived at CEU, he immediately clicked with Barton, a 31 year-old former Weber State guard who once led the Big Sky Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio.

    "The thing I liked most about him was his competitiveness," Edelstein said. "He told me his college coaches had to change the rules to every drill, because he'd find a loophole to win. He'd do whatever he had to do to win."

    In those sedate days of August, where time drips by slowly with recruiting and office tasks, Edelstein and Barton licked their chops at their team's potential.

    "When I got here, we had a ton of talent. Truthfully, there was more than both of us realized. I was definitely excited for how good we could be," Edelstein said.

    Both circled the same date: October 1. The first official day of practice for junior colleges.

    "A Pretty Standard Day"

    Brad Barton (white shirt) led Eastern Utah to a 23-7 record as an interim head coach in 2010-11. In June, he was promoted to permanent head coach.
    Edelstein knew about Brad Barton's health challenges. The College of Eastern Utah head coach had Type 1 Diabetes, and suffered seizures about once a month. The diabetes occasionally gave him trouble sleeping. Overcome by restlessness, he'd return to the office late at night, clock a few hours, and return later in the morning.

    When Barton hadn't arrived for work the morning of Tuesday, October 4, Edelstein thought nothing of it.

    "Then it got close to lunchtime, and I shot him a text and didn't hear from him. He might have been on a different schedule; I wasn't worried. Then we hit close to practice time [3:00 p.m.], and I started thinking, 'I'm a little worried he had a seizure,'" Edelstein said.

    Edelstein left his office and headed to Barton's basement apartment a few blocks away. He banged on the door. No answer. He forced his way in.

    "Then I saw him."

    Edelstein found Barton in the bathroom, unresponsive. He pulled out his phone and called 911.

    It was too late. Brad Barton, 31 years old, was dead. Medical examiners have not released an official cause of death, though most believe it was brought on by a seizure.

    Edelstein - the video coordinator so hawkish on details - can't remember much about what happened afterwards. Paramedics shuffling in and out of Barton's apartment. A police officer asking him to write a statement. Solemn calls to Barton's friends and coaching colleagues. Another thought shook him, too.

    "Truthfully, what I was dreading most was telling our team," he said.

    Golden Eagles players still remained in the gym, waiting for practice to begin. Edelstein had to go directly from Barton's apartment and deliver the news that their head coach was dead.

    The scene that greeted him at the gym stunned him.

    "I was thinking, `Maybe they'll be shooting around.' But they had started practicing on their own, doing drills. That was unreal to me. That's a testament to [Barton], and the discipline he instilled in some of them. That was pretty incredible," Edelstein said.

    Rising From Grief

    Darrin Horn endured a tragedy of his own while head coach at Western Kentucky. In May of 2005, his junior guard, Danny Rumph, collapsed and died after playing a pickup game in his native Philadelphia.

    "The biggest challenge when there's a loss of life in your program is that you're dealing with it yourself personally - which is hard enough because of your care and concern for people - but you also have to help 10 or 11 guys, and staff members, and everybody else, get through it as well. "It's really a life-changing event," Horn said.

    But how do you handle a life-altering event when it occurs three months into your first college coaching job? Brad Barton had trained some of Eastern Utah's players since they were in high school. He was a father figure to many who had come from troubled backgrounds, and placed their basketball faith in him. How does a 25 year-old pull together 18 emotionally-shaken young men, three days into preseason practice?

    Eastern Utah opened its season November 4.

    When he heard of Barton's death from assistant coach Mike Boynton, Horn called his former video coordinator.

    "He was very positive, as I expected him to be," Horn said. "I told him to stay strong and keep doing the right things. You're a high-character guy. You're a hard worker. Your job is just to be there for your players as best you can."

    The next few days were a haze. Edelstein struggles to recall the details. A crisis counselor helped mourning players. Students and faculty waited in lines at the Eastern Utah student center, writing farewell messages on blue and gold blankets. Barton's funeral was held inside the Weber State gymnasium. Through it all, Eastern Utah administrators grappled with a delicate decision: finding a successor to Barton. A day before the funeral, Edelstein interviewed for the position of interim head coach.

    "I would have been fine otherwise, but I was 25 years old," Edelstein said. "They were concerned about a couple of things. And I didn't want to campaign for the job."

    Edelstein may not have wanted to, but his players did. They lobbied to CEU administration to elevate him to interim head coach. They'd already endured the upheaval of losing their coach. They didn't want the added stress of learning a new playbook from an outside candidate.

    A week later, Edelstein was summoned to the Athletic Director's office. The Vice Chancellor for Administration and Advancement sat in as well. The job was his.

    "[My players] were happy," Edelstein said after telling his team at practice three hours later. "I told them, this is what we all wanted. Now we have to prove to everybody that they made the right decision."

    They wouldn't wait long. The next day, Eastern Utah was scheduled to play in a preseason jamboree in Salt Lake City.

    Continuing The Legacy

    On the night of November 4 -- one month to the day after he found head coach Brad Barton dead in his apartment -- CEU opened its season under interim head coach, and former Gamecock video coordinator, Brian Edelstein. Any butterflies of a first-time coach had dissolved long ago, when Edelstein stepped in as an interim high school coach. Besides, he had a more pressing challenge: two projected starters, 6'6" Max Zhakarov and 6'2" Troran Brown, had been ruled ineligible.

    CEU's opening-night opponent, Impact Academy, a prep school out of Las Vegas, began the game by making nine of its first 10 shots. Eastern Utah drilled them by 30.

    The Golden Eagles haven't looked back. Edelstein led CEU to victories in its next eight games, averaging 85 points per contest. A loss last Saturday to Western Wyoming finally snapped the Golden Eagles' 9-0 start. Athletic Director Dave Paur, who also serves as the women's coach, has stepped in as Edelstein's assistant. Another coach, Dave Hammer, works part-time, commuting from Salt Lake City on Wednesdays and travelling with the team for their weekend games. And Barton's parents, Noel and Pam, have come to several of the Golden Eagles' games to show their support. "That's been really special, just continuing what their son valued in a team and doing his family proud," Edelstein said.

    Edelstein with his players.

    While he still uses Barton's playbook, Edelstein acknowledges that he has borrowed some of Darrin Horn's teaching concepts.

    "We're guard-oriented. We want to trap. We want to fly around. There's no out of bounds in our practices, like at South Carolina. There's no quitting," Edelstein says.

    Halfway across the country, as his team prepares to face Clemson, Edelstein has found an admirer in his former boss.

    "It's hard enough to make that jump, period. But to make that jump in the circumstances he made it in, it's an unbelievable challenge. To see him do it well, I think it speaks volumes about him and his work ethic and his ability to stay the course," Darrin Horn said.

    "The bottom line is whatever's thrown in front of you, you've got to keep going," Edelstein said, reflecting after a a recent CEU practice. "You can't live life with what-ifs."

    His current circumstances wouldn't permit it. Besides, if Brian Edelstein did, he might miss the incredible images unfolding in front of him.

    November 23, 2011

    We may not acknowledge them, but we always feel them. The stakes in a rivalry game always lurk in our minds, tempting and taunting us. We both relish the rewards... and fear the consequences. When 60 minutes can last 365 days, you can't help but obsess a little. And somewhere in that fine line between legacy and misery, we feel utterly, absolutely alive. If we didn't, it would just be another game on the schedule.

    Welcome to another Clemson-Carolina week. On to the notes that we've uncovered during our prep work:

    Trivia First: Only two true freshmen have rushed for more than 100 yards against Clemson. Can you name them? Answer coming up later.

    All About TOP: South Carolina has transformed into a hard-nosed, cloud-of-dust offense in the wake of injuries and lineup changes. That, and a swashbuckling streak by Steve Spurrier on fourth down, have allowed the Gamecocks to play a grinding, ball-control style in its last three wins. South Carolina's six scoring drives against The Citadel averaged a remarkable 72 yards. That may come at an opportune time: in both of Clemson's losses, the Tigers slogged through their two worst games in time of possession. The Tigers kept the ball for 23:31 vs. North Carolina State, and a subterranean 21:00 vs. Georgia Tech.

    Shortest Time of Possession - Clemson 2011

  • 21:00 vs. Georgia Tech (L 31-17)
  • 23:31 vs. N.C. State (L 37-13)

    With a raft of defensive injuries, could this be the most important game for South Carolina to play its exacting, ball-control offense?

    The Gamecocks churned out long drives vs. The Citadel. It could be key again vs. Clemson.

    Big Play, Stay Away: Clemson ranks 14th in the nation with 132 passing plays of 10+ yards. Among Carolina's opponents, only Arkansas has thrown for more (and Gamecock fans know how that panned out). Clemson has battled several injuries on the offensive line - LT Phillip Price and RT Landon Walker each have their share of nicks. The Gamecocks will need to blow up the pocket faster than they did against Arkansas, and force quarterback Tahj Boyd to make plays on the run. The Tigers have committed 11 turnovers in the last three games, after only committing 2 in the previous 8 games. Pocket pressure could be the catalyst to stop Clemson's big-play ability.

    Night Vision: Prior to last year, Clemson had won six straight night games over South Carolina (1997, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007).

    "Second" String: Connor Shaw had the rare distinction of throwing more touchdown passes (3) than incompletions (2) against The Citadel. As Carolina bids for the win Saturday, will Shaw's habit of honing in on receivers pay off? Shaw's numbers show a marked improvement in the second halves of games:

    Connor Shaw '11
    HalfCompletionsComp. %INT
    1st Half57 of 9460.6%4
    2nd Half41 of 5771.9%2

  • Clemson has shown a knack for comeback wins, often in dizzyingly fast fashion in the second half. Can Shaw's accuracy be a counterweight to that?

    Connor Shaw has gotten more accurate as games have gone on.

    And Finally... Brandon Wilds has bulldozed for 100 or more yards in two of his first three career starts, a 137-yard effort against Tennessee and a 120-yard outing against Florida. The Blythewood, S.C., native will now aim for a memorable debut against Clemson. If he can continue his success, Wilds will join some exclusive company. In the Carolina-Clemson history, only two true freshmen have rushed for 100 or more yards against the Tigers: Mike Davis (111) in 2005, and Thomas Dendy (106) in 1982.

    Or would Wilds want to join that list? South Carolina lost both of those games (24-6 in 1982, 13-9 in 2005).

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before the rivalry renews.

    November 18, 2011

    Kenny Miles was 15 days old. Sixth-year senior Rodney Paulk was 15 years old (approximately). Regardless, it will be 7,698 days since Jack Douglas took his fateful plunge into the south end zone, lifting The Citadel to a remarkable 38-35 upset over South Carolina on October 20, 1990. The boil has surely cooled to a simmer, if not room-temperature altogether, for Gamecock fans still sore from that loss. For players like Miles and Paulk, it feels like ancient history. More pressing historical matters - such as an 11-win season - come first.

    Our pre-snap reads (including our three Friday "Did You Know's") before the Gamecocks and Bulldogs put toe to leather:

    Triple-Take: The Citadel brings in a triple-option offense modeled after the one Navy used against the Gamecocks on September 17. Former Navy quarterback Craig Candeto is the Bulldogs' quarterbacks and B-Backs coach. In September, the Midshipmen frustrated the Gamecocks with 274 rushing yards, and kept the game close late into the fourth quarter.

    The Gamecocks will try to learn from those lapses, and give The Citadel a tougher time setting its triple-option in motion. Looking beyond Navy's raw rushing numbers, though, South Carolina made effective adjustments to stop the triple-option. In their September 17 matchup, the Midshipmen averaged 6.6 yards per gain on 1st down in the 1st half (16 plays, 86 yards). As a result, Navy's average distance on 3rd down was an impressive 2.3 yards to go.

    If a defense can force 2nd- or 3rd-and-longs against the triple-option, the system naturally becomes less effective. In the second half, the Midshipmen averaged only 2.5 yards per gain on 1st down (8 plays, 20 yards), and 6.6 yards to go on 3rd down. Looking at the table, the numbers almost reverse themselves:

    Vs. Navy Sept. 17
    NavyAvg. Yds. Gained on 1st DownAvg. Yds. to Go on 3rd Down
    1st Half6.62.3
    2nd Half2.56.6

    Will South Carolina take those adjustments into the beginning of Saturday's game?

    Despite allowing 274 rushing yards against Navy's triple-option, Quin Smith and the Gamecocks made effective adjustments in the 2nd half.

    Did You Know, Pt. 1: The Citadel has 9 punt blocks this season, tying a Football Championship Subdivision record. 6'5" receiver Domonic Brown has five, a new FCS record.

    Air It Out? Citadel head coach Kevin Higgins admitted at his press conference that Saturday "will be an ideal time for Coach Spurrier to get his passing attack going. And I think Connor Shaw is at point where he's ready to do that." The Gamecocks have surged to an 8-2 record, despite ranking 99th in the nation in pass plays longer than 20 yards (23). Only one team has as a good a record as South Carolina, while throwing fewer "long pass plays": Kansas State, which ranks #16 in the Associated Press poll with an 8-2 record and 20 20+-yard pass plays. The combined won-loss record of the teams ranked below South Carolina: 76-111 (.406).

    Will Kevin Higgins' prophesy come true, and Connor Shaw air it out vs. The Citadel?

    Did You Know, Pt. II: The Citadel has only thrown one passing touchdown this year... and it came from running back Rickey Anderson against Elon.

    Running Wilds: Brandon Wilds had the unenviable task of replacing Marcus Lattimore after he suffered a season-ending ACL injury against Mississippi State. The freshman from Blythewood HS has handled his battlefield promotion with poise, rushing for 120 yards (and only 1 negative yard) against Florida. Not only was it the second-most rushing yards allowed by the Florida defense all year (behind Alabama's Trent Richardson), but it nearly equaled the Gators' season average of 123 rushing yards allowed.

    Wilds - who has earned the nickname "Little Matt Forte" from teammates for his fearless, downhill running style - said a sage piece of advice from Lattimore has guided him.

    "He tells me every day, `Play like you're in high school. It's just another Friday night,'" Wilds told me.

    A sage piece of advice from Marcus Lattimore has helped freshman running back Brandon Wilds.

    Did You Know, Pt. III: What a matchup it may be if cornerback Marty Markett matches up with Citadel wide receiver Kevin Hardy. Before walking on to the football team, Markett was a member of South Carolina's All-America 4x100 meter relay team. Hardy has won two Southern Conference titles in the long jump.

    Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Game time is scheduled for 12:04 p.m. on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. See you at Williams-Brice.

    November 15, 2011

    Growing up in Winnsboro, S.C., Ellis Johnson had offers to play football at small colleges around South Carolina. He instead followed in the boot tracks of his father (Clemson) and older brothers (West Point) to military college.

    Saturday, for the first time in his 36-year coaching career, Johnson faces his alma mater when South Carolina battles The Citadel at Williams-Brice Stadium (12:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network). The Gamecocks' Assistant Head Coach will also oppose the school where he served as head coach from 2001-03.

    The metaphor seems too perfect: a man who spent his formative years at a military school, adhering to a strict code of discipline, building rigid, impenetrable defenses at Alabama, Mississippi State, and South Carolina. Johnson's allegiance to The Citadel remains strong, despite a career that has taken him to college football's most gloried programs.

    "I pull for them 364 days out of the year," the 59 year-old said in his office at the Floyd Building Monday. "I support the Brigadier Club [The Citadel's athletic fundraising foundation]. I always want them to be successful. Different former players and alumni sponsor their Monday steak night for players. I've done that. There are a lot of things I've put in down there from a personal commitment."

    Funny, considering Johnson left The Citadel after just one semester.

    A Cadet Life

    Ellis Johnson figured Cadet life couldn't be that strenuous.

    "Where I grew up, my home - my freshman year at The Citadel wasn't much different than what I'd been through the previous 18 years," he joked.

    After a standout high school career, Johnson committed to play for The Citadel, despite not visiting the school until after he graduated. It was his best scholarship financially, he liked the city of Charleston, and his brothers, John and Oliver, played football at Army.

    South Carolina Assistant Head Coach Ellis Johnson once prowled the field as a defender for The Citadel.

    Johnson enrolled at The Citadel in 1970, playing freshman football and basketball for the Bulldogs (freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity). He also submitted to The Citadel's infamous "knob year," where first-year Cadets face a grueling procession of physical and mental tests.

    Everything was going according to plan. Then, a recruiter from another school pulled him away.

    Band of Brothers

    A military school builds brotherhood. But it can never replace actual brotherhood. That led Johnson to a change of scenery after his first autumn in Charleston in 1970.

    "My oldest brother, John, was reassigned on active duty military to go up and coach the freshman team [at Army]. That occurred the summer after I had already signed my scholarship to The Citadel. We talked occasionally, and he came down to visit me on another recruiting visit. He just said, `Why don't you look at going to West Point, since you've already chosen a military school?'" Johnson said.

    After a semester at The Citadel, Johnson transferred to West Point.

    Lured by the idea of playing for his brother, and enjoying other aspects of West Point, Johnson transferred from The Citadel after his first semester. Since he couldn't enroll right away, Johnson went home to Winnsboro, spending his Spring and summer working with his uncle as a surveyor (they scoped much of the land that would eventually bisect Interstate 77). When Johnson arrived at West Point in July 1971, he had to enroll again as a plebe. Johnson may have been the only person brave enough - or crazy enough - to endure two consecutive knob years.

    "That was a long, grinding path to take," Johnson admitted.

    Despite reuniting with his older brother, Johnson felt the tug of former old school. He realized he liked The Citadel more than he remembered. So, following his plebe year at West Point, Johnson returned home, re-enrolling at The Citadel. The Bulldogs welcomed him back, but on the condition he redshirt his first season.

    "The biggest challenge was not getting to play football that one year as a redshirt after having to play freshman football two years in a row. Sometimes I appreciate our redshirt and scout team players because I know what a long, boring year that is," said Johnson.

    Bonded as a Bulldog

    Back at The Citadel's barracks, Ellis Johnson settled in.

    "Everybody called me `The Ghost.' I stayed out of the way. I didn't get into trouble. I never walked a tour. When you get in a lot of trouble down there, you either sit in confinement in your room for an hour or you march for an hour. You literally march back and forth from the barracks. I never marched a tour," he said.

    Johnson finally suited up for the Bulldogs in 1973. On the field, he was The Citadel's answer to Antonio Allen: Johnson played "wide tackle," a forebear to the Spur position.

    "We called them defensive ends back then. It was the old 'wide-tackle six' defense, which is just a shade away from what we play now," he said.

    Returning to the Citadel had another benefit for Johnson: it gave him the perfect incubator for his budding coaching career. Bobby Ross, the future head coach of the Detroit Lions and San Diego Chargers, was his head coach. Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen was defensive line coach. Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer was secondary coach. Charlie Rizzo was his position coach. Cal McCombs, who served as head coach at VMI, and Jimmye Laycock, the longtime head coach of William & Mary, also served on the staff. Johnson learned from a veritable all-star team of coaches.

    Johnson learned under a stable of future head coaches at The Citadel.

    "That had an influence as I went to college and decided that I wanted to go into coaching. I think my experience with Coach Ross and his staff was sort of what sewed it up for me. I knew I wanted to coach," Johnson said.

    Johnson graduated from The Citadel in 1975, and joined Bobby Ross' staff as defensive ends coach. Now, 36 years after trading in his Cadet blues, Ellis Johnson's football life comes full circle Saturday. But rest assured, any warm reminiscences will be put on hold.

    "I always want them to see them be successful. Obviously, I work for South Carolina now. It doesn't matter who we're playing. We want to do the best job we can preparing our football team," said Johnson.

    Allegiances only run so deep.

    November 13, 2011

    Florida's secondary played a wide zone. Connor Shaw couldn't find open receivers downfield. Rather than force passes or obstinately overstay his welcome in the pocket, time and again Shaw stepped up, sprinted out, and took off for positive yards. When the Gamecocks needed a tough extra yard, or had to improvise on a spoiled passing play, Shaw - whose concussion against Arkansas put his status in question this week -- showed no fear of contact. The result was a season-low 13 pass attempts, a season-high 88 rushing yards for Shaw, and a 17-12 victory over Florida.

    Adapting and showing toughness. Shaw's play against Florida characterized the Gamecocks' play in the second half of SEC season. Even without Marcus Lattimore, Kyle Nunn, or Stephen Garcia, South Carolina finished 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference for the first time in school history. Through all their adversity, the Gamecocks swept their division opponents for the first time ever. It may not be enough to return them to the Georgia Dome, but for head coach Steve Spurrier, it hardly mattered Saturday. His pride was palpable in the post-game locker room. History happened again for South Carolina football.

    Steve Spurrier made more history at South Carolina.

    Notes, quotes, and anecdotes on an SEC East-sweeping day at Williams-Brice Stadium:

    Changing of the Guard? South Carolina has gone 6-0 against Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee the last two years. The Gamecocks went 6-24 against Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee the previous 10 years (2000-09).

    YearRecord vs. UGa, Tennessee, Florida

    Mount Rush-More: Whether on sweeps, inside-zone reads, or straightahead dives, the Gamecocks kept Florida off-balance with a steady diet of runs. Florida ranked 31st in the nation (4th in the SEC) against the rush, allowing 123 yards per game. South Carolina had 160 rushing yards by halftime. For a second straight year, the Gamecocks bounced back from an anemic rushing performance against Arkansas to bury Florida under an avalanche of yards on the ground.

    Rushing Yards
    YearRush Yds. vs. ArkansasRush Yds. vs. UFDifference

    The Gamecocks also picked up the tough yards - the Gamecocks had 12 rushing first downs and 1 passing first down.

    Jumping Through Hoops: I learned more about Connor Shaw's basketball career when I chatted with Western Carolina forward Ishmael Hollis Friday. Hollis played 10 minutes in the Catamounts' 75-50 season-opening loss to the Gamecocks at Colonial Life Arena. A 6'8," 190-yard sophomore, Hollis starred at Flowery Branch HS in Flowery Branch, Ga., where Shaw was both his classmate and teammate. In 2009, Hollis and Shaw led the Falcons to their first state playoff victory in school history. They split team-high honors with 10 points.

    "I'd be in the gym working out in the mornings, and he'd be upstairs in the weight room," Hollis told me. "After he got done, he'd come down to the gym and I'd catch passes for him. He was always trying to get his mechanics down."

    When I asked Hollis to describe Shaw's basketball abilities, he responded with one word: "Play-maker."

    "Whenever we had a big game, he always had a big game, too," Hollis said. Sound familiar?

    Connor Shaw: Not a bad basketball player, either.

    Coming Up Aces: Ace Sanders' 46-yard catch of a looping Connor Shaw spiral in the fourth quarter may have been his second-best play as a punt returner this season. How so? Sanders works on over-the-shoulder catches as part of his punt-catching practice. He showed the fruits of it on that catch.

    Record Setters: Alshon Jeffery wasn't the only person who achieved a school record Saturday. The Gamecocks also set a school record for fewest points allowed in SEC play. Despite a couple of scoreboard-burners (42 points versus Georgia, 44 points versus Arkansas), South Carolina allowed an average of 16.9 points per game against SEC opponents.

    Fewest PPG Allowed - SEC Only

    Travian Robertson (#42) and the Gamecock defense finished off a record-setting SEC season.

    End of an Era: Jay Wooten finally has his chip shot. It lasted until Week 11, but the Gamecocks ended their run as the last team in the nation to not have a field goal inside of 40 yards. Wooten drilled a 28-yarder with 9:14 left in the fourth quarter.

    And Finally... The Gamecocks aim for a ninth win against The Citadel Saturday. The game kicks at 12:00 p.m. on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network.

    Enjoy the view.

    November 11, 2011

    With apologies to the actual Homecoming, the Gamecocks prefer a homecoming of another kind Saturday: a return trip to the Georgia Dome December 3. The stakes are widely known by now: South Carolina needs a win over Florida, coupled with a Georgia loss to Auburn, to ensure a second straight SEC Eastern Division title.

    The Gamecocks have no control over what happens in Athens; they do control what happens in their historically one-sided series with Florida. Enjoy your pre-snap reads (including our three Friday "Did You Know's") before we find out whether "repeating" can replace "reigning" as the preferred prefix for the SEC East Champion Gamecocks:

    Pistol Whipped: Like South Carolina, Florida has used every form of spit, glue, and tape to piece together its quarterback position. With John Brantley IV's mobility hampered by a sprained right ankle, the Gators debuted several plays out of the pistol formation against Vanderbilt. The website "Smart Football" has a detailed explanation of the pistol offense from the team that pioneered it, the University of Nevada. In the pistol, the quarterback lines up in shotgun, but only four yards from center as opposed to the traditional seven yards. The tailback, instead of lining up alongside the quarterback, stands directly behind him.

    John Brantley (#12) in the "pistol" formation. Because pistols are shorter than shotguns -- get it?

    Florida's shift to the pistol presents its challenges. On inside-zone runs, the tailback stays hidden behind the quarterback, making it difficult for defenses to key on him. Defenders have a harder time deciding which side a run is headed. Tailbacks can run more downhill. Florida head coach Will Muschamp says the Gators haven't designed any new play packages for the pistol; they're simply running their current plays out of that formation.

    While not novices, the Gamecocks were far from emeritus-level defenders against the pistol in Fayetteville. On our SportSouth telecast, I counted at least three instances where Arkansas lined up in the pistol formation. On one play, tailback Dennis Johnson rushed up the middle for 17 yards, the Razorbacks' longest running play of the game. On another, quarterback Tyler Wilson play-faked to Johnson, then threw a 68-yard touchdown pass to a streaking Jarius Wright. Spur Damario Jeffrey, perhaps frozen on the pistol's play-action, allowed Wright to whiz by him on a post route.

    Using the pistol against Vanderbilt, Florida ran for 197 yards, including a career-high 158 yards from senior Jeff Demps. During their four-game losing streak, Florida gained 175 rushing yards combined. Clearly, running is central to Florida's offensive success (and we're not talking about this guy, either). Can the Gamecocks make the shrewd play pick-ups, gang-tackle Demps and Chris Rainey,, and limit the pistol's effectiveness?

    Florida RB Jeff Demps has struggled in his career vs. South Carolina

    Speed Kills? The "fastest man in college football," running back Jeff Demps, has pumped his brakes against the Gamecocks. A four-time NCAA Track & Field Champion, Demps averages 7.1 yards per carry for his career, the highest average among active NCAA players with a minimum 250 carries. The last two years against South Carolina, though, Demps' numbers drop off considerably.

    Jeff DempsYds./Carry
    vs. South Carolina (last 2 years)2.8

    Demps managed -1 yard on 2 carries last year, and had a pedestrian 31 yards over 11 carries in '09.

    Fast Start: Alligators can reach speeds up to 30 mph on short bursts and lunges out of the water. Florida Gators need short bursts in the first quarter to lead them to victory. In five wins, Florida has outscored opponents 54-3 in the first quarter. In four losses, the Gators have been outscored 31-17. Can the notoriously slow-starting Gamecocks avoid giving Florida a quick, confidence-boosting lead? Their streak of allowing the first score in 12 straight games seems long overdue.

    Quote of the Week: First-year Florida head coach Will Muschamp visited UF his senior year of high school to inquire about walking on.

    Said Muschamp at his introductory press conference: "I went to see Coach Spurrier, but he wasn't there for his appointment. I think he was 2-under."

    Spurrier told Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun, "You tell Will we never had appointments for walk-ons, and I haven't been 2-under for a long time."

    Did You Know, Pt.I: Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins' name is Swahili for "mighty." Both of his parents have black belts in karate.

    All Grown Up: His hometown is listed as Jacksonville, Fla., but junior linebacker Shaq Wilson confesses that's misleading. Wilson's family lived in Lakeland, Fla., halfway between Tampa and Orlando, until his seventh-grade year. While in Lakeland, Wilson played on a Lakeland Patriots pee wee football team alongside current Gators star Chris Rainey.

    "I still have a picture from Pop Warner of me and Chris, about this high, from about the second grade," Wilson told me, holding his hand waist-level. He hopes for plenty of reunions Saturday.

    LB Shaq Wilson and Florida RB Chris Rainey go way back.

    Did You Know, Pt. II: Florida starting cornerback Jaylen Watkins is the half-brother of Clemson freshman wide receiver Sammie Watkins.

    Jeffery Watch: The record watch continues, albeit longer than expected. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery needs 19 more yards to pass the late Kenny McKinley for South Carolina's career receiving yards record. Using his average from last season, Jeffery would've surpassed that mark by the Vanderbilt game. He also has another drought to stop Saturday: of the 9 SEC teams Jeffery has faced more than once, Florida is the only school against whom he has not caught a touchdown pass.

    Adding to the enervation, Jeffery has not caught a pass of 10+ yards since the Kentucky game. Jeffery ranked 3rd in the nation in that category last year (61). Vanderbilt QB Jordan Rodgers threw for 297 yards against Florida, often keeping plays alive with his feet. Can Connor Shaw do the same, and attack a young Florida secondary (which starts a freshman and sophomore at CB) with a long-awaited vertical passing game? The Gators play a hefty amount of man-to-man coverage, which should give Jeffery a chance.

    And Justice for Al-Shon? Alshon Jeffery will hunt for big-play catches against the Florida secondary.

    Hold Serve: Special teams proved particularly unkind to the Gamecocks in Fayetteville. Florida drips with big-play potential, from kick returner Andre Debose (28.0 ypp) to placekicker Caleb Sturgis (8 touchbacks). South Carolina has stayed close, despite a gaping difference in field position lately:

    Field PositionOpp. Starting Field PositionSouth Carolina Starting Field Position
    TennesseeOwn 45Own 27
    ArkansasOwn 46Own 24

    In fairness, South Carolina's turnovers against Tennessee came deep inside its own territory, resulting in deceptively poor field position. Nonetheless, the Gamecocks can't allow a strong Florida special teams to grind them down with long, lopsided fields.

    Did You Know, Pt. III: Florida defensive tackle Omar Hunter won a state championship for Buford HS in Buford, Ga., in 2007. His team won 50-0 over Lovett HS, coached by Mike Muschamp, the brother of Gators head coach Will Muschamp.

    Hunter is listed as a backup. Wonder why?

    Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our coverage starts at 9 a.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you then.

    November 9, 2011

    John Brantley III remembers Steve Spurrier as an offensive visionary - so long as he put away his golf clubs.

    "We had a big open field by the stadium, and he'd hit golf balls during lunch. He had a pitching wedge and an iron that he kept in the back of his Datsun 240Z," Brantley said.

    "Sometimes we as players had to remind him that, hey, it was meeting time."

    Before the national championship, the "Fun and Gun" offense, and the "Head Ball Coach," Steve Spurrier was a first-year quarterbacks coach at his alma mater, Florida, in 1978. After 10 hard-knock years in the NFL, his coaching career now began at the same place where he won a Heisman Trophy for the Gators a decade earlier. And in his maiden season of coaching, Spurrier's first-ever starting quarterback was none other than Brantley, the father of current Gators starting quarterback John Brantley IV. Brantley IV and Florida face South Carolina Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium (12:10 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network).

    "John played baseball in the Spring. I had Cris Collinsworth, a couple other guys with me in Spring practice," Spurrier told me last year. "John was on scholarship for football, but would come over in the fall."

    John Brantley III (#12) in 1979. Brantley was one of Steve Spurrier's earliest protégés at quarterback in 1978. (Photo courtesy

    When he heard that Spurrier would become his position coach, Brantley, a junior, felt elated.

    "I was just glad [head coach] Doug Dickey hired Spurrier to bring us out of the wishbone, and into a more pro-style offense," Brantley said.

    The plays Spurrier designed hardly resembled something from the staid pages of the wishbone. The practice fields quickly turned into his test laboratory. And early on, Brantley witnessed the devilish, brilliant play-calling that would transform Spurrier from a first-year quarterbacks coach to a surefire Hall of Famer.

    "The thing I remember the most was that he had a good idea what he wanted to do early. He's been a gunslinger his whole life. Everything back then, it was `How can I out-gimmick these people?' We were a .500 club at best. He was trying to take our talent and give us an advantage.

    "He made practice fun. We worked on a lot of trick plays," Brantley recalls.

    He proved a quick study under Spurrier. Brantley finished the 1978 season with 1,334 passing yards and 11 touchdowns, the most by a Florida quarterback in seven years. The Gators finished with a record of 4-7.

    Spurrier's tutelage only lasted one year. After the 1978 season, Charley Pell replaced Dickey as Florida head coach, and decided not to retain Spurrier. He instead took a job as quarterbacks coach at Georgia Tech. As fate would have it, in the second week of the 1979 season, Spurrier's Yellow Jackets squared off against Brantley at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Brantley, then a senior, remembers the reunion for something else.

    "They had a ritual there at Florida where we had those plastic Coke tops on the lids of drinks. At the end of the third quarter, the fans would whiz them down like a Frisbee, trying to hit the visiting team. I turned up the field, slipped on one, and it ripped my hamstring," he said. Brantley missed the rest of the season. Florida finished an ignominious 0-10-1.

    John Brantley IV faces the Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday.

    Time has taken some zip off their spirals, but the relationship between coach and former player remains strong to this day. Spurrier recruited wide receiver Dion Lecorn and linebacker Antonio Allen from Ocala Trinity Catholic in Ocala, Fla., where Brantley III coaches. Lecorn and Allen won a state championship with Brantley's son, John IV, at quarterback.

    "If you ever go into his office, you always look up in the left-hand corner, I'm the first one up there. We've kept a great relationship over the years with him and his family," Brantley said.

    They even play golf together once or twice a year. Imagine that.

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before the Gamecocks and Gators tangle in Columbia.

    Did You Know... John Brantley III was born in Chester, S.C. His son, Florida starting quarterback John IV, was born at Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital in Columbia, S.C.. The Brantleys lived in Northeast Columbia while John III ran Carolina Ceramics for his uncle.

    November 6, 2011

    Before the fourth quarter began, a howling wind swept across Razorback Stadium, sending trash and strands of pom-pom swirling in the air. The notes and charts on our broadcast table began to flap, threatening to fly away into the stands. Plastic wrappers twinkled like confetti from the upper deck. The night, chilly but comfortable to that point, took a bitter, biting turn. And the atmosphere of Saturday's game seemed to change with it.

    Playing on the road has a cruel calculus. Lose the turnover margin, lose the field position battle, give up special teams scores - allow any of those things, and it becomes hard to win. Allow all of those things, and it becomes nearly impossible. South Carolina learned that the hard way, falling 44-28 to #7 Arkansas to drop to 5-2 in the SEC. For eight weeks, the Gamecocks controlled their SEC destiny. Now, the Gamecocks must beat Florida, and hope for Auburn to beat Georgia, to claim a second straight spot in the SEC Championship game.

    The wind gave an eerie foreshadowing at Razorback Stadium.

    The winds may have shifted, but they haven't changed permanently on the Gamecocks' season. Remember, South Carolina found itself down and deflated after a 41-20 loss to Arkansas last year, only to curb-stomp Florida the following week. The Gamecocks have bounced back under similar circumstances. With the right mixture of buoyancy, belief, and correcting mistakes, something special may still be in the air.

    Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from our night in Fayetteville:

    Revisiting S&P: On Wednesday's "Inside The Chart," we pointed out South Carolina's Pass Defense S&P, a more sabermetric version of the traditional Pass Defense stat. While Pass Defense only measures total yards allowed, Pass Defense S&P takes into account a team's efficiency and where its yards gained came on the field. The Gamecocks ranked 3rd nationally in pass defense, but their Pass Defense S&P was a milder 64th in the country. On clear passing downs, the Gamecocks had a statistical tendency to give up effective plays.

    On a third-and-two, Devin Taylor returns an interception 55 yards for a touchdown. Arkansas, though, had far more success converting long third downs against the Gamecocks.

    Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson affirmed that with his plays Saturday night. Arkansas converted 5 of 15 third downs, all on Wilson throws. The average distance to go on those third downs: 7.4 yards. The average yards Wilson picked up to move the chains: 20.6 yards. Like we mentioned Wednesday, South Carolina couldn't allow Arkansas to pick up long, deflating first downs.

    Third Downs5 of 15
    Avg. Distance to Go7.4 yds.
    Avg. Yards Gained20.6 yds.
    Pass/Run Split5/0

    Kudos To: Junior Kenny Miles, who gave the Gamecocks a dose of angry, aggressive offense in the second half. Not known as a bulldozing runner, Miles may have given the highlight of the night when he "cockroached" safety Tramain Thomas on a 23-yard catch. What's a "cockroaching," you say? My broadcast partner Brad Muller broke it out on our telecast - it's a rugby term for when a player sends an opponent flat on his back with his arms and legs in the air. Brilliant.

    Vic-tory Formation: The first time Victor Hampton touched the ball for Darlington HS in September 2009, he returned a punt 52 yards for a touchdown against South Florence HS. It didn't take long for Hampton to show his special teams talent again. In his first game returning kickoffs, the redshirt freshman ran the opening kickoff of the 2nd half a season-long 55 yards, setting up a Carolina touchdown. His fourth-quarter fumble notwithstanding, Hampton may have solidified South Carolina's kick return game.

    Victor Hampton reawakened the special teams talent he first showed at Darlington HS in Darlington, S.C.

    One of those Days: The last two times South Carolina lost when scoring a defensive touchdown, they've come against Arkansas. The Gamecocks now have five defensive touchdowns this season, which ranks among the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The NCAA does not keep statistics on fumble recoveries for touchdowns.

    Can't Keep A Good Man Down: Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette earned pre-season 1st Team All-SEC honors, but a hamstring injury had limited his effectiveness. On Saturday, Bequette reminded everyone why he deserved the hype. Bequette repeatedly pressured Connor Shaw, forcing the Gamecocks to reshuffle their offensive line in hopes of finding a solution. Bequette set the tone for a Razorback defense that didn't give Shaw time for an intermediate or deep route to develop. Arkansas' success rushing the passer came as a surprise: the Razorbacks ranked last in the SEC in sacks (11) coming in. The Razorbacks had 5 Saturday night.

    And Finally... Saturday's game versus Florida kicks off at noon on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. Bring your battling shoes. It figures to be a memorable finish to the SEC regular season.

    November 4, 2011

    Our pre-snap reads (including our three Friday "Did You Know's") before that other big SEC game kicks off in Fayetteville:

    Air Traffic Control: It figures to be a colossal matchup Saturday. Arkansas sprays the football like the space ship in Galaga, ranking 9th nationally with 321 passing yards per game. South Carolina counters with its predatory secondary, which ranks third in the nation in pass defense (135 yds./game).

    Some have argued that the Gamecocks' defensive numbers are skewed, thanks to a combination of facing run-heavy offenses and first-time quarterbacks. However, the last time the Razorbacks played a team with such high-ranking defensive numbers, it didn't turn out so well. Alabama - the only team with a better pass efficiency defense than Carolina - throttled Arkansas 38-14 on September 24.

    GamesPassing Yards AllowedPassing Yds./Game
    South Carolina81087135.88

    Alabama (1st in the nation in pass defense) stymied Arkansas 38-14 on September 25. Can South Carolina (3rd in the nation in pass defense) follow suit?

    How did the Tide do it? Let's examine:

  • They Stopped The Run. It seems counterintuitive, forcing a passing team to pass more. Yet Alabama battered the Arkansas running game, holding the Hogs to 19 yards on 17 carries. That, in turn, that made the passing game more predictable. "When they're able to run the ball effectively against you, you've really got issues, because now you're off-balance all the time," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. To accomplish it, Saban played a lot of split-safety coverage, and dared Arkansas to run.

    South Carolina felt the consequences of not containing the run last year. Running back Knile Davis torched the Gamecocks for 110 rushing yards, forcing Carolina to bring more players into the box for run support. That allowed Ryan Mallett to find receivers in space (he finished 21 of 30 passing), and get Carolina scrambling to recover in the secondary. If the Gamecocks can force passing downs by stopping 1st- and 2nd-down carries, they can commit more defenders to pass coverage, while only rushing 3-4 linemen.

  • They Pressured Tyler Wilson. The junior quarterback has drawn praise for his incredible toughness in the pocket. Unfortunately, he's only earned those plaudits because he has gotten knocked around so much. Alabama unleashed a torrent of hits on Wilson; cameras showed him limping by late in the first half. Wilson may have gotten back up, but by forcing him to roll the pocket, Alabama made him less accurate. "Sacking them affects them. But hitting them all the time and making [Wilson] move his feet because you move the pocket affects him, too," Saban said.

    We'll see whether Carolina can follow Alabama's blueprint - and also follow them into the win column.

    Did You Know, Pt. I: Arkansas linebacker Ross Rasner had a high school graduating class of six people.

    Stat Showdown of the Week: To the dismay of Razorback fans (and the delight of Razorback cardiologists), Arkansas has had a troubling trend of falling behind early. Arkansas trailed Texas A&M 35-17 before racing back for a 42-38 win. Ole Miss jumped out to a 17-0 lead before falling 29-24. Vanderbilt held a 28-17 lead before Arkansas stormed back for a fortunate, 31-28 win. Even defensive coordinator Willy Robinson has called his team's efforts "erratic."

    Brandon Wilds and the South Carolina offense should have a chance to establish the ground game in the 1st half.

    Why have the Razorbacks suffered such slow starts? For one, Arkansas ranks 112th in the nation, allowing 5.5 yards per carry in the first half. If teams can play ball control against the Hogs, their draining, catch-your-breath offense has less time on the field. Less time on the field means fewer chances to score. It also hasn't helped that Arkansas has gone three-and-out on its last five opening possessions.

    The Gamecocks have survived ho-hum starts this season. They may not have that luxury Saturday. Can South Carolina establish its ground game early like it did versus Tennessee?

    Did You Know, Pt. II: In the last two seasons, Arkansas scored 84 points against South Carolina, had 632 passing yards.... and only one passing touchdown. Figure that out.

    Ticking Away: Connor Shaw had precious little time in the pocket against Tennessee, his time often cut short by pressure from the edge. Arkansas has a pair of vaunted pass rushers, but neither will be at full strength Saturday. Pre-season 1st Team All-SEC defensive end Jake Bequette has been slowed by a hamstring injury, while starting defensive end Tank Wright will not play with a broken arm. Shaw has not unleashed many long, vertical throws since taking over as starter. Will those losses on Arkansas' line - and better protection from Carolina's offensive line - give Shaw a chance to spread it out downfield?

    Connor Shaw and LT Rokevious Watkins face an Arkansas defensive line that comes in at less than full strength.

    Did You Know, Pt. III: Connor Shaw has thrown for 582 yards and six touchdowns this year. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson threw for 582 yards and six touchdowns in his high school state championship game as a junior. His team, Pulaski Academy, won 56-55.

    Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our coverage starts at 4 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you in Fayetteville.

    November 2, 2011

    He leads the Gamecocks in tackles. On Tuesday, he was named a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award, honoring the nation's top defensive back. Earlier this year, his three interceptions and three fumble recoveries led the nation for turnovers by an individual player.

    And he's done it all while battling asthma.

    "I've had it since I was four years old. I'm having [an attack] right now," senior spur Antonio Allen told me Monday, moments after practice ended.

    How ironic. The man whose hits leave ball-carriers breathless often has trouble catching his own.

    "I've learned to play with it. It's good during the summer. It's just during the winter when I have my flare-ups," the Ocala, Fla., native said.

    The forecast calls for a game-time temperature in the low 50's in Fayetteville. Better luck next time, Arkansas.

    Antonio Allen with one of his team-high 62 tackles.

    More notes that we've uncovered during our prep for Saturday's broadcast

    S&P: An Introduction. As a Spur, Allen must be athletic enough to drop into coverage, yet stout enough to stop the run. His responsibilities may tilt toward the former Saturday, when he faces an Arkansas offense that ranks 9th in the nation in passing offense (321 yds./game). Ryan Mallett's cannon arm has left for the NFL, but redshirt junior Tyler Wilson has more mobility and doesn't give up on plays.

    South Carolina boasts the nation's 3rd-best pass defense (135.0 yds./game), and only trails Alabama nationally in pass efficiency defense. However, the Gamecocks lag behind in a lesser-known passing metric: Pass Defense S&P.

    In layman's terms, S&P combines Success Rate (a tool used to measure efficiency) and EqPts Per Play (essentially, a measure of explosiveness). For fans of baseball sabermetrics, think of it as a football version of OPS (On-Base + Slugging). Not only does S&P account for a team's ability to complete passes, but its ability to complete effective passes.

    In S&P Pass Defense, which only takes into account passing downs (defined as 2nd down and 8+ yards to go or 3rd/4th down and 5+ yards to go), the Gamecocks drop to 64th in the nation. Think back to the Auburn and Mississippi State games, when those teams managed to convert long third-down passing plays. On clear passing downs, the Gamecocks have had a tendency to give up effective yards through the air.

    Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson.

    Why might that be significant? In South Carolina's last two losses against Arkansas:

  • The Razorbacks converted 62% of their third downs.
  • Ryan Mallett's completion percentage on third downs was a staggering 85.7% (12-for-14).

    For the Gamecocks to win Saturday, they can't allow those deflating pickups on long third downs -- something their Defense S&P suggests they've had trouble doing.

    Better Days Ahead: Something tells me Wilson will fare better than his last encounter with South Carolina. In his only pass attempt in relief of Mallett last year, Wilson was sacked and stripped by Stephon Gilmore, with Byron McKnight returning the fumble for a touchdown.

    "40-Yard Dash": Here's another push-meets-shove statistic that will come into play Saturday. South Carolina is one of two teams nationally, along with USF, that has not allowed a play from scrimmage longer than 40 yards. Arkansas, meanwhile, has scored a touchdown of 50 or more yards in all 7 of its wins. Can South Carolina avoid giving up the big play to Arkansas' talented cadre of receivers and returners?

    Don't Get Comfortable: Arkansas has easily wrestled the title of "SEC Team Most Capable of Cheating Death" from Auburn this year. The Razorbacks trailed Texas A&M 35-17 at halftime, then roared back (behind Wilson's 510 passing yards) for a 42-38 win. Ole Miss led 17-0 in the 2nd quarter before the Hogs scored 29 unanswered points. Last week, Arkansas trailed Vanderbilt 28-17 midway through the 3rd quarter before rallying for a 31-28 victory. Those comebacks make sense: few offenses sap the stamina from a defense as well as Arkansas', especially as the game wears on.

    They may find a different challenge on Saturday. South Carolina has allowed only one touchdown in the 2nd half of its last five games.

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before the Gamecocks head to Fayetteville.

    October 31, 2011

    Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from a Neyland-draining night in Knoxville:

    "Wilds-cat Offense": Geremy Saitz made the trek from Columbia to Knoxville to watch Saturday's game with a former teammate at Newberry College. Saitz had more than a rooting interest in the Gamecocks: he was also Brandon Wilds' head coach at Blythewood HS in Blythewood, S.C.

    What Saitz witnessed would've put a smile on even the stoniest coach's face. In his first career start, the 6'1," 223-pound freshman bruised, battered, and banged his way for 137 rushing yards, a performance that will surely earn him SEC Freshman of the Week.

    When I caught up with Saitz (pronounced "sights") after the game, the normally laconic coach couldn't help but gush about his former pupil.

    "He's always run that way," Saitz told me over the phone. "He gets downhill and keeps leaning forward at the end of his runs. That's something we always noticed, too - he gets better as the game goes on."

    Brandon Wilds played in front of his high school coach Saturday night.

    Tennessee learned that the hard way. After gaining 73 total yards in the first half, head coach Steve Spurrier had no problem featuring Wilds prominently in the 2nd half. On the Gamecocks' 20-play, 98-yard drive in the third quarter, Wilds carried the ball 11 times for 51 yards. In Wilds' three 3rd-down carries, he converted all three first downs, rushing for 22 yards (7.3 yds./carry).

    Despite that rugged running, another play left an indelible impression on Saitz. "My favorite play - and it won't show up in the stats - was on that 4th and 1 from the [23]-yard line. He picked up the blitz and allowed Connor to make the touchdown pass. It just showed his unselfishness," Saitz said.

    If Wilds had any nerves performing in front of 90,000 orange-clad fans at Neyland Stadium, he didn't show them. Based on past experience, Saitz didn't expect any, either.

    "We had a game against Fairfield Central his junior year, and he scored on a 70-yard run in the first quarter. He comes off the sidelines, and he starts throwing up. But then he goes back in and finished the game, and had about 150 yards, and we won the game," Saitz said.

    Whether as coach or spectator, Saitz saw a familiar outcome - with a familiar toughness - from Wilds Saturday night.

    Quote of the Night: "That was the first I felt tired like that in a long, long time."

    -Brandon Wilds on our post-game show on the 11 carries he took during Carolina's 20-play, 98-yard, slow-burn touchdown drive in the third quarter. Hitting holes without hesitation, Wilds' last 24 carries went for positive yardage.

    Field Flipped: On Wednesday's "Inside The Chart," we mentioned that Carolina can't bless Tennessee with short fields, either from turnovers or shoddy special teams. In four previous SEC games, the Vols' average starting field position was their own 26; their opponents' was their own 44. On Saturday, the numbers were almost completely inverted:

    Average Starting Field Position - SEC Games
    TeamTennessee Avg. Field PositionOpponent Avg. Field Position
    4 previous SEC gamesOwn 26Own 44
    SaturdayOwn 45Own 27

  • The Gamecocks gave the Volunteers short fields all night. Thanks to a typically stout, turnover-wreaking defense, Tennessee couldn't do much with them.

    D.J. Swearinger and the Gamecock defense snuffed out favorable field position from Tennessee all night.

    Pickoff Party: With two more interceptions, the Gamecocks have 16 interceptions on the season. That equals their total from the last two seasons combined (10 in 2010, 6 in 2009).

    Nailed It: Last Monday, we told you that Tennessee leads the nation in 3rd-down conversions in wins (69.6%), but ranks 91st in the nation in losses (28.6%). The Volunteers managed 2 of 14 conversions for a second consecutive week.

    Stingy: With two games remaining, South Carolina could set a school record for fewest points allowed in SEC play. (And that's after ole-ing 42 points against Georgia in Week Two.) In fact, the Gamecocks could allow 33 points per game against Arkansas and Florida, and still break the record:

    Fewest PPG Allowed - SEC
    201113.2 (2 games remaining)

    And Finally... As the calendar turns, Carolina will now face its most challenging offensive test yet. Since Bobby Petrino's arrival in 2008, Arkansas has bewitched the Gamecocks with its rapid-fire, circuit-breaking pass game. A third straight 14-point outing, most would acknowledge, will not cut it. Offensive line needs to give Connor Shaw better protection, and receivers need to get better separation from their defensive backs. But as Carolina hits the home stretch, at least one question was answered Saturday night: life after Lattimore need not be so intimidating. Where there's a Wilds, there's a way.

    See you this week as we dive into our prep for the Arkansas game.

    October 28, 2011

    Some teams have the Wildcat offense.

    Tomorrow, the Gamecocks debut their "Wilds"-cat "Shaw"-ffense.

    Life after Lattimore begins in earnest Saturday, when Connor Shaw, Brandon Wilds, and Bruce Ellington try to make up for the loss of their star tailback against Tennessee (3-4, 0-3 SEC). The circumstances look eerily similar to Carolina's last game: on the road, facing a winless but hungry SEC team, whose quarterback will be making his first career start.

    The Gamecocks hope the similarities don't end there.

    Final pre-snap reads (including our three Friday "Did You Know's") before Carolina and Tennessee put toe to leather:

    Fragile Rock: Derek Dooley could have an entire YouTube wing dedicated to his colorful, candid, and sarcastic comments. The Tennessee coach's quotes have about as much subtlety as a neon truck stop sign. Lately, Dooley has directed his unhappiness at Tennessee's anemic play in the second halves of games. In 11 losses at UT, Dooley's teams have been outscored by a combined 136-28 in the second half. In consecutive losses to #1 LSU and #2 Alabama, Tennessee has been routed by a grisly 52-0 margin after halftime.

    "We get... I mean, it's like the sky is falling. We get this look like, `Oh my gosh.' And we just.... Fragile, man. Young and fragile," Dooley said this week.

    When bad things start happening, Tennessee has shown a tendency to fold. South Carolina, though, hasn't shown a true, step-on-your-throat, killer instinct this season. An important key for Carolina: don't let Tennessee get emboldened. A defensive stand here... a turnover there... a long gain from scrimmage over there... anything that allows the Vols to melt away their doubts.

    Orange pants, red face: Derek Dooley has been unhappy with Tennessee's mental fortitude in the 2nd half.

    Did You Know, Pt. I: Recruiting is a game of hits and misses - or in Derek Dooley's case, a miss that turns into a hit. As head coach of Louisiana Tech, Dooley recruited safety Prentiss Waggner from tiny Clinton, La. At his in-home visit, Dooley told Waggner he "didn't think he was good enough to go to Tennessee." Waggner ignored the advice and signed with the Vols. He now leads Tennessee with 5 pass breakups (PBU), earning Preseason 2nd Team All-SEC honors for Dooley.

    Man To Stop: Tennessee running back Tauren Poole. Why feature a player from a backfield that ranks 115th in the nation in rushing offense? Heading into last week's game against UT, Alabama had allowed a nation's-best 38 rushing yards per game. Poole, a senior from Toccoa, Ga., surpassed that by the 8:00 mark of the 2nd quarter. Indeed, the 5'10," 215-pound tailback has saved some of his bigger rushing games for Tennessee's glitzier opponents:

  • 162 yards vs. eventual BCS National Championship Game runner-up Oregon.
  • 117 yards vs. Alabama in `10 (the only RB in the last 55 games to top 100 yards rushing against the Crimson Tide).
  • 70 yards vs. LSU two weeks ago (most allowed by the Tigers this year).
  • Poole showed insouciance toward obstacles early in his career, a trait which carries into his running style. He thrives between the tackles, keeping his head low and hitting holes hard. If the target jumps around on QB Justin Worley, Derek Dooley may ask Poole to carry the offense.

    Tennessee running back Tauren Poole.

    Did You Know, Pt. II: In addition to Poole, Tennessee will utilize running back Marlin Lane, a freshman from Daytona Beach, Fla., who ranks fifth on the team with 12 receptions. Unfortunately, the story that pops up most in an Internet search of Lane is this. Think before you ink.

    Spread It Out: Tennessee expected an adjustment with the departures of wide receivers Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones, as well as NFL-drafted tight end Luke Stocker. The transition got more turbulent September 17, when top deep-ball threat Justin Hunter (17 catches, 314 yards in 3 games) tore his ACL against Florida. Stephon Gilmore will likely draw the assignment on sophomore Da'Rick Rogers, who ranks 2nd in the SEC with 37 receptions. Still, more than a month-and-a-half later, no receiver has stepped up to complement Rogers.

    To ease in Worley, Tennessee might break out a package similar to the shotgun spread he ran at Rock Hill's Northwestern HS. Despite its nation's-leading 133 passing yards per game allowed, the Gamecocks have struggled at times to contain the spread offense (see ECU, Georgia). Spread formations only work, though, when multiple receivers get involved. If another Tennessee receiver can emerge - former four-star recruit DeAnthony Arnett, sophomore Zach Rogers, slot receiver Rajion Neal - will the Tennessee offense loosen up?

    If Tennessee uses a spread package for QB Justin Worley, other receivers besides Da'Rick Rogers (pictured) need to get involved.

    Jersey Clean: Connor Shaw completed his final eight passes against Mississippi State, leading Carolina to a come-from-behind win in his first career road start. Can he now stay composed in front of 101,000 leather-lunged fans in Knoxville? He should have time to step into his throws and make good decisions: Tennessee ranks last in the SEC, and 104th in the nation, with 8 sacks in 7 games (1.14/game). If freshman Brandon Wilds can't muster many downhill runs, Shaw shouldn't (on paper) feel panicked from Tennessee's pass pressure.

    Date With Destiny? South Carolina is 2-1 against Tennessee on October 29. The Gamecocks are 3-19-2 on all other dates against the Vols.

    Youthful Intentions: Tennessee had never started a true freshman at linebacker in school history. The Volunteers have two starting this year in A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt. Neither has approached that task timidly: Johnson is the only true freshman in the nation to lead his team in tackles (45).

    Did You Know, Pt. III: Derek Dooley graduated from University of Georgia Law School. Before jumping into coaching, Dooley did civil litigation work in the Atlanta office of Columbia, S.C., firm Nelson, Mullins, Riley, and Scarbrough.

    Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our coverage begins at 4:00 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. See you in Knoxville.

    October 26, 2011

    This fall has brought a new experience for junior All-SEC cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The BMOC now has a LSOC.

    Little Sister on Campus.

    Stephon's sister, Sabrina, is a freshman enrolled in the Moore School of Business. Gilmore may have his sister's name inked on his arm (along with the names of his parents and five other siblings), but even he admits the closeness has its drawbacks.

    "She stresses me sometimes, always calling me. But she's always there for me. I love her. I do it for her," Gilmore told me after practice Monday.

    It appears Sabrina is skilled in press coverage, too.

    Junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore has a new experience on campus this year.

    Gilmore will now turn his attention to pestering the Tennessee offense. After idling last weekend, the Gamecocks have moved to #1 in the nation in pass defense, allowing 133 yards per game. Even with those accolades, Gilmore sees room for improvement.

    "We've given up plays that we felt we shouldn't have given up. We know we can get better," he said.

    Tennessee may not want to hear that. Sabrina Gilmore definitely would.

    More notes from our chart work against Tennessee:

    Not The First Time: Adding to the degree of difficulty, Tennessee will give true freshman quarterback Justin Worley his first career start Saturday. With sophomore Tyler Bray sidelined by a broken thumb and backup Matt Simms ineffective in two starts, head coach/lawyer Derek Dooley burned Worley's redshirt in hopes of also igniting his sputtering offense. Gilmore recalled his last encounter with Worley, a fellow Rock Hill native and former Gatorade National High School Player of the Year. In the 2008 Class AAAA Division II state title game at Clemson's Memorial Stadium, Gilmore's South Pointe Stallions faced Worley's Northwestern Trojans. Gilmore, playing quarterback, rushed for 119 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 35-14 victory. A look at their stat lines:

    PlayerRushing (Att.-Yds.-TD)Passing (Comp.-Att.-Yds.-INT-TD)

    From dueling against Worley under center, Gilmore will now duel against him in the secondary.

    The Rock Hill Herald gave South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore and Tennessee's Justin Worley top billing in the 2008 state championship game (Courtesy: Will C. Franklin).

    A Thin Line: How thin was Tennessee's offensive line last year? The Volunteers did not have a backup listed at two positions, the first time I ever recall that happening on my spotter chart. Four starters have returned for Tennessee, morphing it into an area of reliability for Derek Dooley.

    Feeling Tight: Tennessee tight end Mychal Rivera ranks 2nd on the Vols with 20 receptions, and has the second-most catches of any tight end in the SEC. How will the Gamecocks' stingy pass defense match up against Tennessee's 6'3," 254-pound target flaring off the line? The Gamecocks have allowed one catch by a tight end this season. Unfortunately, it was the fateful go-ahead touchdown by Auburn's Philip Lutzenkirchen.

    Instant Impact: "Don't beat yourself." Coaches preach it all the time, but it's easier said than done against certain opponents. South Carolina especially can't give the ball to Tennessee, because the Volunteers haven't shown any propensity for taking it. On Twitter yesterday, I noted that Tennessee has only made 14 "impact" defensive plays this year (Sacks + Takeaways). The Volunteers rank 103rd in the nation in sacks (8.0), and 114th in the nation in takeaways (6). By contrast, the Gamecocks have made 38 "impact" plays (14.0 sacks + 24 turnovers).

    Based on my research, only Minnesota (9), Kansas (10), Arizona (12), and Boston College (12) have fewer "impact" defensive plays than Tennessee. The Gamecocks can't let blown assignments or lapses in technique allow Tennessee to play out of character, and rack up "impact plays." For an 0-4 SEC team, any unneeded impact plays could have major consequences on momentum.

    A key Saturday: limiting the out-of-character "impact" plays that Tennessee makes on defense.

    Turf War: The schedule-makers handed Tennessee a sadistic start to its conference schedule: the Volunteers' first five opponents (Georgia, Florida, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina) have a combined 31-6 record. Steep competition can lead to steep fields, and the Volunteers have needed a Sherpa guide to climb out of their own territory. In SEC play, the Vols' average starting field position is their own 26; their opponents' is their own 44. The Gamecocks' field position is a relative push: own 29 for Carolina, own 31 for opponents.

    Average Starting Field Position - SEC Games
    TeamOwn Field PositionOpponent Field PositionDifference
    TennesseeOwn 26Own 44-18
    South CarolinaOwn 29Own 31-2

    If Tennessee's fields get any steeper, this guy might become their offensive coordinator.

    Another symptom of not forcing turnovers is losing the field position battle. With Justin Worley making his first career start, Tennessee's defense and special teams will need to bless him with shorter fields. Once again, it underscores the importance of playing turnover-free football.

    Watch For... The big play. In 7 games, Tennessee has allowed 6 plays from scrimmage of 60 yards or longer. That ties for the most in the nation.

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before the Gamecocks descend (ascend?) on Rocky Top.

    October 24, 2011

    The question stabbed through the sleepy Sunday air.

    "Can you play outfield, Andy?"

    Chad Holbrook laced his sentence with a chuckle. Gallows humor was about the only reaction the Gamecocks' associate head coach had left. Holbrook asked the question to me as we waited outside the team hotel on a sultry Sunday morning in Starkville, Miss. The night before, the Gamecocks had lost centerfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr., to a wrist injury while diving for a fly ball. The severity of the injury was still unknown, though judging by the grim countenances around the coaching staff, the outlook wasn't good. The week before, right fielder Adam Matthews re-aggravated a hamstring injury in the series finale against Vanderbilt. Then came the coup de grace for Holbrook: left fielder Evan Marzilli had to be held out indefinitely due to an undisclosed medical condition.

    In the span of a week, the Gamecocks had lost all three starting outfielders. In the tooth-and-nail world of the SEC East, South Carolina could barely afford to lose one starter, let alone three. On the heels of a come-from-behind, 5-3 loss, it felt like the Gamecocks had gone from rolling to reeling overnight. Their Easter Sunday rubber match against the Bulldogs suddenly felt a lot weightier.

    Yet as I took my seat for the ride to Dudy Noble Field, something struck me. The mood inside the bus didn't feel solemn. There was no numbness among the players. The Gamecocks always managed to stay loose, no matter the circumstance. Yet I could sense a determination in the air, a little stronger than usual, cutting through the ESPNEWS that gurgled in the background. We still know who we are, it said. One player's loss doesn't affect that. We still know what we're going to do.

    The bus pulled out of the parking lot. The wagons were already circled.

    With an outfield that we described on the air as "pieced together by spit and tape" - Steven Neff in left field, DeSean Anderson in center field, and Jake Williams in right field - the Gamecocks delivered a 13-4 rout of the Bulldogs. The 13 runs was an SEC season high. In our post-game interview, Ray Tanner said he felt as proud as any team he'd coached.

    The rest is history. After the Mississippi State series, the Gamecocks finished the regular season with a record of 13-4. The Commodores, Gators, and Gamecocks all crossed the finish line with identical 22-8 SEC records.

    Fate delivered the Gamecocks a cruel hand -- or wrist -- in Starkville. But their reaction to Jackie Bradley, Jr.'s injury helped define their season.

    When the news broke that Marcus Lattimore would miss the rest of the season with cartilage damage in his left knee, I thought back to that Sunday in Starkville. An injury doesn't strip a team of an impact player, so much as it magnifies a team's true colors. Can you rally together? Do you have confidence in your ability to get the job done? Can you play with resolve and focus, and believe as tenaciously in your goals as you did before?

    Gamecock baseball faced a crossroads on that soupy afternoon in Starkville. Injuries could have defined their season. How they reacted to those injuries defined them instead. 174 days later, Gamecock football faced a crossroads moment of its own in Starkville. We're about to find out whether they follow suit.

    On to our notes as we begin our chart prep for Tennessee:

    "The Game Within The Game": Sometimes, the subtlest observations can lead to the biggest results. Senior safety D.J. Swearinger noticed Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell pat his left hip before throwing a fade pass in the first quarter of last Saturday's game. When Swearinger spotted the gesture again as Russell drove into Carolina territory, looking for a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, he immediately cheated to that side. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward told me that cornerback C.C. Whitlock noticed the gesture, too, and bailed from his man coverage into a zone. Sure enough, with Whitlock providing support, Swearinger swooped over receiver Arceto Clark for the game-sealing interception.

    "Down Pat": A pat of the hip led D.J. Swearinger and C.C. Whitlock to a game-sealing interception against Mississippi State.

    Third And Convert: If you're looking for a clue into South Carolina's fortunes Saturday, look no further than Tennessee's third-down conversion rate. The Volunteers lead the nation in third-down conversions in wins (3 games, 32 of 46, 69.6%). In losses, though, Tennessee ranks 91st in the nation (4 games, 14 of 49, 28.6%).

    At his midseason press conference, Steve Spurrier lamented his team's struggles in stopping third down conversions. For as much stalking as the Gamecocks have done (24 turnovers forced, T-2nd nationally), opponents have also converted 40.0% of their third downs. The Vols' proficiency in moving the chains could be a difference-maker Saturday.

    Tennessee Games - 20113rd down conversion %NCAA Ranking
    Wins69.6% (32 of 46)1st
    Losses28.6% (14 of 49)91st

    Last Team Standing: Jay Wooten scoffs at your chip shots, America. After North Carolina and San Diego State dropped out last weekend, South Carolina is the only remaining team in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) that has not made a red-zone field goal. In fact, the Gamecocks haven't even attempted one. In 23 red zone trips, the Gamecocks have 17 touchdowns, 6 turnovers (4 on downs), and 0 field goals. South Carolina is the only team in the nation that has not attempted a field goal of less than 40 yards.

    They can't all be as majestic as Alshon Jeffery's game-winning touchdown versus Mississippi State, but the Gamecocks have scored 6, rather than settle for 3, in the red zone.

    Margin For Error: In Steve Spurrier's three wins over Tennessee at South Carolina, the Gamecocks have a +3 turnover margin. In Spurrier's three losses, the Gamecocks have a -7 turnover margin.

    Check back Wednesday for more of our notes as we prepare for Tennessee.

    October 14, 2011

    Mississippi State entered the season with aspirations of fighting Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas for SEC West supremacy. Six weeks later, the Bulldogs find themselves at a crossroads. At 3-3 (0-3 SEC), the Bulldogs simply have designs on getting bowl eligible and re-igniting their once high-powered offense. Throw in a mid-season quarterback controversy, and the Gamecocks not only walk into a stadium that'll be loud in decibels, but thick with urgency. A win over South Carolina may be the re-boot that Mississippi State needs.

    Pre-snap reads (including your three Friday "Did You Know's" on how South Carolina can avoid that:

    The New Shaw-fense: The refrain rained through Gamecock Country all week: "But it was Kentucky." Connor Shaw threw for 311 yards and 4 touchdowns last week, but they came against a punchless Wildcats D (albeit one with the nation's 11th-best pass defense). Shaw will now try to validate those numbers amidst the cowbell-clattering din of Starkville's Scott Stadium. He may find some relief: Mississippi State ranks 102nd in the nation (and last in the SEC) in defensive completion percentage. Opponents have connected on 64.6% of their passes; in SEC play, that percentage rises to 66.7%. That's in spite of MSU fielding one of the best ballhawking tandems in the SEC in cornerbacks Corey Broomfield and Johnthan Banks (20 combined interceptions).

    MSU may allow opponents to hit their targets, but they also do a good job staying behind their wideouts -- the Bulldogs have allowed 2 pass plays of 30 yards or longer, the second-lowest total in the nation. Clearly, the Bulldogs want teams to beat them with singles and doubles, not home runs. Shaw gained confidence against Kentucky by firing off quick slants, screen passes, and dump-offs into the flat. Will a similar, short-yardage recipe bring him success against MSU?

    Connor Shaw faces a Mississippi State secondary that allows a high completion percentage.

    Did You Know Pt. I: When studying for a broadcast, I've learned that that every team has a player you should root for. Mississippi State defensive end Kaleb Eulls is that player.

    Mullen Over His Decision: Give Dan Mullen credit. The Mississippi State head coach can handle a stressful decision with humor. When asked whether he would start senior Chris Relf or sophomore Tyler Russell, Mullen joked that he should begin the game in the Wildcat, "so that way none of them start and everybody will flip out." Relf has experience (19 consecutive starts) and a more physical running style for MSU's option. Russell sparked the Bulldogs' offense against UAB (11-for-13, 3 TD in the 2nd half) and is a better vertical passer. Decisions, decisions.

    Either way, MSU's quarterback will need help from his offensive line. In my digging around, I discovered this: Mississippi State ranks dead last in the nation in tackles for loss allowed in conference play. In three SEC games, the Bulldogs have given up an astounding 33.0 TFL (only Texas has a worse TFL average among teams that have played at least three conference games). A battered offensive line which has already lost RG Tobias Smith, and could lose LT James Carmon for Saturday, hasn't cleared running lanes for MSU's zone-read option. Now they face one of the better defensive lines in the country, which returns a full-strength Melvin Ingram. If the Gamecocks can get into the backfield - something they did with regularity against Kentucky - it may not matter who takes the snaps.

    Which Leads To... If that "TFL allowed" average holds true, the drumbeat for Russell may grow louder. Since Mississippi State's first two games, Chris Relf has completed just 11 of 26 passes on 3rd down (42.3%). Only 6 of those completions have resulted in a first down.

    Mississippi State will decide between starting senior Chris Relf (left) and sophomore Tyler Russell (right) at quarterback.

    Did You Know Pt. II: Mississippi State has not scored an offensive touchdown in the last 124:51 of SEC play. After a Vick Ballard rushing touchdown with 4:51 left in the 2nd quarter against Auburn, the Bulldogs went without a touchdown in the 2nd half, were held to a pair of field goals against LSU, and only mustered a pick-six against Georgia.

    Three The Hard Way: When Jay Wooten lined up for a 42-yard field goal in the third quarter against Kentucky, we joked that it must have felt like a chip shot (Wooten's previous field goals had come from 48 yards or longer). When playing on the road, teams need to finish off drives. A field goal may add three points, but it can feel like a Pyrrhic victory if the home team stops the drive close to the goal line. With that in mind, will Saturday mark the end of an impressive streak for Carolina? The Gamecocks are one of three teams (along with North Carolina and San Diego State) that have yet to kick a field goal inside the red zone. Mississippi State has the best red zone defense in the SEC, holding opponents to 8 TD's in 18 red-zone opportunities (44.4%).

    Red Zone Opportunities - 2011Red Zone TripsTD'sFG's

    The Gamecocks showed a knack for big plays against Kentucky. Red-zone execution may be more important against the Bulldogs.

    Did You Know Pt. III: Mississippi State graduated two linebackers, K.J. White and Chris Wright, who were chosen in the NFL Draft. They were replaced by a preferred walk-on and a former quarterback. The walk-on, Brandon Wilson, and the quarterback, Cameron Lawrence, are tied for the team lead with 50 tackles.

    Actions speak louder than cowbells. Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our coverage starts bright and early at 9:00 a.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you Saturday.

    October 12, 2011

    And you thought the distractions this week would center on cowbells...

    Regardless of the noise -- metallic, media, or otherwise - that South Carolina faces, the game is what matters most. The scoreboard will define this second week of October for the Gamecocks, not the distractions thatr come before it. Everything else, literally and figuratively, is an artificial noisemaker.

    On to a peek at our chart-in-progress for Mississippi State:

    40-40 Vision: Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen has fashioned his team around a punishing running game, whether the carries come from 6'4," 245-pound jawbreaker Chris Relf or physical tailback Vick Ballard. Last year, the Bulldogs had the seventh-highest adjusted run-pass ratio in the nation, trailing only Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Illinois, and the service academies. "Adjusted run-pass ratio" eliminates all downs that are obvious passing or running situations, and only accounts for plays that could statistically go either way. Under those circumstances, Mississippi State ran the ball 65.4% of the time in 2010.

    As the Gamecocks try to contain the Bulldogs, pay attention to this cut line: 40 carries. In researching Mississippi State's run tendencies, I found this: in Dan Mullen's 14 wins over FBS opponents, the Bulldogs have only won twice when attempting fewer than 40 carries. The Bulldogs rushed the ball 39 times in a 24-17 victory over Kentucky in 2010, and 33 times in a 59-14 season-opening disintegration of Memphis.

    Naturally, if a team trails late, they have to abandon their clock-draining running game. The Gamecocks have a Venus fly trap of a pass defense that now ranks 3rd nationally (128.5 ypg allowed). If South Carolina can seize the lead from MSU, and steer the Bulldogs away from their wheelhouse, it would play directly into their strength.

    Can the Gamecocks force the Bulldogs into fewer than 40 carries?

    Bear Down: It has a student body population of 1,780. "Catcher In The Rye" author J.D. Salinger went there (for a semester, at least). The USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame is located on campus. It seems like an unlikely breeding ground for big-time SEC coaches, but tiny Ursinus College, an idyllic outpost 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, has produced a pair of coaches who will oppose each other Saturday. Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen played tight end at Ursinus (pronounced UR-sin-us) from 1990-93. Gamecock quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus spent two seasons at Ursinus as the Bears' offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. Mangus' 1999 team posted a school-record 10 wins, including the Bears' first-ever Division III playoff victory. The next year, Mangus and Ursinus went 8-2, for their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1954.

    Zacharias Ursinus, 16th century German theologian and father of an SEC coaching tree,

    See Ball, Keep Ball: Despite Mississippi State's run-heavy system, the Bulldogs rarely put the ball on the ground. MSU has had only 2 fumbles in 256 carries, a ratio that ranks fourth in the nation behind Auburn, Northwestern, and LSU.

    Amazingly, Auburn is the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision that has not lost a fumble... yet the Tigers have the 11th most carries in the nation (267).

    Coming Through: Jadeveon Clowney joined teammates Melvin Ingram and Antonio Allenas additions to the Bednarik Award Watch List, honoring the nation's top defensive player. Clowney is the only freshman to be added the list.

    Latti-Meter, Part II: Call Marcus Lattimore a home-wrecker. He'll take it as a compliment. The sophomore from Byrnes H.S. has shown a knack for hard, downhill, devil-may-care running on the road in the SEC. After charting it, I found that Lattimore averages a yard more per carry in SEC road games than he does in SEC home games:

    SEC GamesYardsCarriesYds./Carry

    Any conquest of a team's turf must be done forcefully, with little regard for style or subtlety. Lattimore's running style suits that perfectly - as do the results.

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before the Gamecocks and Bulldogs take the field.

    October 9, 2011

    Gamecock fans had a checklist Saturday, one born of fact, frustration, and urgency. They wanted a quarterback who made sharp, consistent throws. Receivers not named Alshon who got involved. An offense that protected the football. A game where both units clicked.

    Check, check, check, and check.

    At the halfway point of the season, the Gamecocks got the feel-good win they wanted. On a sun-drenched afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium, South Carolina had few flaws in a 54-3 rout of Kentucky to stay atop the SEC Eastern Division (5-1, 3-1 SEC). Connor Shaw confidently handled his promotion, throwing for a career-high 311 yards and four touchdowns. The Gamecock defense played its usual, havoc-wreaking self. Steve Spurrier dialed up everything from options to flea flickers, turning the playbook into his personal muse. And the Gamecocks outgained the Wildcats by a staggering 543 yards (639-96), the largest differential that Media Relations and I could find in school history. The defending SEC East champs played like predators, and with the "An-Ville" of their schedule looming (Starkville, Knoxville, and Fayetteville), the performance came at just the right time.

    Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from a dominant day in the broadcast booth:

    Seeing Blue: One of Shaw's savviest throws came on the first series, and may have set the tone for the day. Conventional wisdom tells a quarterback to throw to the strong side of a blitz (because the blitzing defender leaves behind one less man in pass coverage). On the sixth play of the drive, with the Gamecocks facing a 3rd and 7, Kentucky fired a blitz off right tackle Cody Gibson. Instead of dumping off to that side, Shaw found tight end Rory Anderson curling the opposite way for a 46-yard catch-and-run. One play later, Shaw hit Alshon Jeffery for a 20-yard touchdown.

    An early throw by Connor Shaw set the tone for his career-high day.

    I asked Connor what he saw as he lined up:

    "I saw Kentucky jump to man coverage [on the left side, opposite the blitz], and knew that we had a couple of guys coming on a drag route over the middle. When I saw the linebacker blitz me from [the right side], I knew I'd have a man open," Shaw told me outside the equipment room.

    On Friday, we pointed out the importance of Shaw picking up Kentucky's blitzes. Rick Minter's 4-2-5 scheme allows the Wildcats to send blitzers from multiple, unpredictable angles. Shaw's blitz pick-up - and subsequent long gain - sent a statement.

    Shaw Family Values: As Connor flung a career-high 303 passing yards, his older brother Jaybo quarterbacked #1 Georgia Southern to a 28-27 win over Chattanooga. Dad Lee watched Connor in Columbia, while Mom Dawn followed Jaybo in Statesboro.

    Like any true quarterbacking family, the decision required some audibling.

    "My Mom went to my first start against ECU and my Dad went to see my brother, so I think he talked my Mom into [him attending Saturday,]" Connor said.

    Dad would've approved.

    One More Thing: I asked Connor if Jaybo would have as many passing yards as his 311 against Kentucky. "He might have that many rushing," Connor joked. Georgia Southern leads the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing offense.

    On Track, Minus The Sacks: In college football, yards lost by sacks count against a team's rushing total. As a result, rushing numbers can get skewed easily. That makes South Carolina's performance even more staggering: the Gamecocks did not record a single sack against Kentucky.

    Compare Saturday's game to the recent throttling of Vanderbilt. Kentucky gained 96 yards on 53 plays; Vandy had 77 yards on 45 plays, but also had -42 rushing yards from sacks. Taking away the yards lost by sacks, Kentucky had 23 fewer yards -- and on 8 more plays -- than Vanderbilt.

    OpponentGross YardsYds. Lost From SacksTotal Yards

    Caught in a secondary sandwich - did Saturday's game trump the Vanderbilt game as South Carolina's most dominant defensive performance?

    Justice is Served: Junior Justice Cunningham had a career-high 5 catches, the most by a Gamecock tight end since Weslye Saunders had 7 versus Georgia in 2009. That included Cunningham's first career touchdown, an 11-yard hook-up from Shaw in the 2nd quarter.

    "What was the most number of passes you caught in a game in high school?" I asked Justice afterwards.

    The former All-Stater from Pageland H.S. chuckled. "2? 3?"

    It was that kind of day.

    Turnover Party: One of the funniest moments came in the third quarter, when senior C.C. Whitlock intercepted a Kentucky pass and sprinted out of bounds into the awaiting arms of co-defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. After attempting an ill-fated cutback near the sideline last week, which allowed Auburn's Phillip Lutzenkirchen to strip him, Whitlock knew better. He said so to Ward after they locked arms.

    "I told him I wasn't going to let something like last week happen again," Whitlock cracked.

    Halfway through the regular season, South Carolina has 12 interceptions. That puts the Gamecocks on pace to break the school record for interceptions in a season, set in 1981, 1984, and 1987 with 23.

    Cornerback C.C. Whitlock learned his lesson from last week.

    And Finally... The South Carolina defense has not only shown a knack for making big plays, but a knack for preventing them. Kentucky only managed one play from scrimmage of longer than 10 yards, a 16-yard run by tailback Jonathan George with 6:00 in the fourth quarter. Through six games, the Gamecocks have allowed 24 plays of 10+ yards. That average (4.0 plays/game) is tied for 2nd in the nation, trailing only UCF.

    Big plays -- produced and prevented -- by the defense. Big plays turned in by a reinvigorated offense. And the potential for big results heading into the second half of SEC play.

    See you next week as we dive into our prep for Mississippi State. Thanks for reading!

    October 7, 2011

    Pre-snap reads (including our three Friday "Did You Know"'s) before the Gamecocks welcome in the Wildcats:

    First Things First: You know who says, "It's not how you start, it's how you finish"? People who don't start well.

    You know who says, "Games aren't won in the first quarter, but they can be lost in the first quarter"? People whose teams don't score early.

    College football has a cottage industry of clichés about the ability - or inability - to score at the beginning of games. Based on their 4-1 start, you can judge for yourself whether those statements fit the Gamecocks. Regardless, sophomore Connor Shaw will start at quarterback Saturday, hoping to kick-start an offense that has looked moribund the last two games.

    I looked at South Carolina's scoring efficiency in the first quarter compared to last season:


    The Gamecocks have already committed five more turnovers in the first quarter than they did all of last season. Not surprisingly, Carolina's touchdown efficiency has tapered off as well.

    Can Shaw, thrust into the starting role, get the Gamecocks offense rolling? Kentucky might be a ripe test subject - the Wildcats have been outscored 48-9 in the first quarter. They've also yet to force a first-quarter turnover. Shaw will need to make the proper blitz pick-ups against Rick Minter's tough, attack-from-all-angles 4-2-5 defense. This Aug. 2011 quote from Minter sums it up best: "Part of our philosophy is confusion." If Shaw can handle the confusion and make the proper checks, South Carolina's ball-carriers could have lots of room to create... and lots of room to re-create their success in the first quarter.

    Sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw.

    Did You Know Pt. I: Connor Shaw's older brother Jaybo, the starting quarterback at Georgia Southern, has directed the Eagles to the highest-scoring offense in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). GSU averages 46.3 ppg through 4 games.

    Newton's Law: Joker Phillips braced himself for growing pains after losing his top quarterback (3,000-yard passer Mike Hartline), top running back (the durable Derrick Locke), and top two wideouts (All-SEC performers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews) in the offseason. But even the hardiest Wildcat fan didn't expect this much rough sledding. A rash of dropped passes from receivers. An injury-plagued offensive line that has allowed an SEC-worst 21 sacks. A tepid 50% completion percentage from starting quarterback Morgan Newton. Perhaps to counter that, Phillips has implored Newton to run more. "We have to run Morgan Newton this year to be successful," Phillips said last month. If Newton pulls it down and takes off, the Gamecocks need to avoid the weaving, freelance runs that can sometimes jump-start an offense.

    Man to Stop: Kentucky defensive ballhawk Winston Guy. One of the better-kept secrets in the SEC, Guy leads the Wildcats in tackles for loss (6.5) and interceptions (2), and ranks 2nd in the SEC in tackles behind teammate Danny Trevathan. The 6'1," 216-pound senior was switched to a hybrid safety/linebacker position in Rick Minter's scheme, a move meant to get him closer to the line of scrimmage. Kentucky will play without starting defensive end Collins Ukwu due to injury, leaving undersized, 250-pound redshirt freshman Mike Douglas to take his place. That could put a greater emphasis on firing a fast, hard-hitting player like Guy on blitzes. If the Gamecocks offensive line, which will be without LT Kyle Nunn, has trouble holding its blocks, a player like Guy could be dangerous.

    Hard-hitting Kentucky defensive back Winston Guy.

    Did You Know Pt. II: The Gamecocks went the entire 2010 season without a player recording a double-digit tackle game. Kentucky senior linebacker Danny Trevathan reached has double-digit tackles in 13 of his last 14 games. Trevathan leads the SEC (7th nationally) in tackles per game.

    The Latti-Meter: The hand-wringing flew when Marcus Lattimore only carried the ball 16 times in last week's loss to Auburn. Remember, though, that Carolina only attempted 52 plays. Percentage-wise, Lattimore's load didn't look all that different from the 13 games he played in last year.

    Regardless, a productive Lattimore usually means a productive Gamecock offense. And when Lattimore wants to shake off a slow rushing week, he normally breaks out the next week:

    Lowest Rushing Totals - Career
    OpponentYds.Next Week Rush Yds., TD's
    Arkansas '1030212 yds., 3 TD vs. Florida
    Auburn '103394 yds., 2 TD vs. Florida
    Clemson '104884 yds., 0 TD vs. Auburn
    Southern Miss '1052184 yds., 2 TD vs. Auburn
    Auburn '1166???? vs. Kentucky

    Kentucky allowed 4.92 yards per rush on the road last season, one of the worst figures in the nation. Look for Lattimore to run with a purpose Saturday.

    "Fool me once...." Marcus Lattimore has followed up subpar games with a vengeance during his career.

    Did You Know Pt. III: New UK running backs coach Steve Pardue was former Gamecock QB Blake Mitchell's head coach in high school. Pardue served as head coach of Lagrange HS in Lagrange, Ga., from 1994-2010. Mitchell helped Pardue win his first state title in 2001. He also owns one of the more colorful quotes I've read from an SEC assistant coach. When asked to describe players from Lagrange, Pardue said, "They're like catfish. You have to put a nail through their head to kill them."

    Now that we're prepared for the Wildcats, we hope you are as well. Our coverage starts bright and early at 9 a.m. on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you then.

    October 5, 2011

    Chalk it up to the pressure caused by Carolina's down linemen. Or defensive backs not falling prey to pump fakes. Or suffocating, stride-for-stride coverage downfield. (Or, for the cynical, the inclusion of Navy on the schedule.)

    Either way, the South Carolina secondary has quietly exorcised a demon from last season: allowing the long passing play. Through five games, the Gamecocks allowed the third-fewest passing plays of 10+ yards per game in the nation.

    Opponent Passing Plays of 10+ Yards (Per Game)
    RankTeamGamesPassing Plays of 10+ Yds.Plays/Game
    2.Michigan State5204.0
    1.South Carolina5234.6

    It should be noted that Michigan State and UCF rank 1-2 nationally in total defense.

    Contrast that with last year, when the Gamecocks allowed 130 passing plays of 10 or more yards, the 12th highest total in the nation. Junior D.J. Swearinger mentioned improved communication with fellow safety Devonte Holloman as a reason why the Gamecocks have avoided breakdowns.

    "Both of us played last year. We got good experience back there. We're communicating very well out there," Swearinger said Tuesday. With Randall Cobb (mercifully) gone for the NFL, and last year's SEC touchdown receptions leader Chris Matthews graduated, Kentucky finds itself painfully low on pass-catching playmakers. The forecast looks good for South Carolina to cement that average further.

    The Gamecock defense has not been burned by the big passing play this year.

    Other notes as we prep for the Wildcats:

    Rush to Judgment: Even if 2-time defending SEC Defensive Player of the Week Melvin Ingram can't play, the Gamecock appear poised for a strong pass rush Saturday. Injuries have forced a game of musical chairs on the UK offensive line: the Wildcats have plummeted from 34th in the nation in Sacks Allowed in 2010 (19.0) to 118th this year (21.0).

    Head coach Joker Phillips attributes it not to poorer O-line play, but less savvy leadership by his quarterback. "[Former quarterback] Mike Hartline made a huge difference in getting our protections set, getting the ball out of his hand, getting the ball to the guys who made plays for us," Phillips said. However, if Ingram can't play, Ellis Johnson's ability to run stunts with Jadeveon Clowney and his cornerbacks may be compromised. Will the Wildcats' besieged offensive line catch a break?

    A Little Help? Once Carolina faces Kentucky, the Gamecocks will have played three of the four least-penalized teams in the nation.

    RankTeamPenalties/GamePenalty Yds./Game
    4.East Carolina3.2528.0

    Creature Comforts: Kentucky counts seven South Carolina natives on its roster, among them cornerback Cartier Rice (a teammate of Marcus Lattimore at Byrnes HS) and defensive tackle Donte Rumph (a teammate of Alshon Jeffery at Calhoun County HS). The pipeline doesn't quite flow the other way: the Gamecocks only have one son of the Commonwealth on their roster, junior wide receiver D.L. Moore. Moore graduated from Bowling Green High School in Bowling Green, Ky., where he led his team to three straight state championship games. His head coach, Kevin Wallace (whose son, John, graduated with Moore and plays on the offensive line at Kentucky), told me that Moore didn't always have the look of an elite player.

    "D.L. was nicknamed `The Creature' by one of our assistant coaches, because when he was young he looked like a stick man. He was tall and skinny, and he didn't look like he was a guy who should be playing football," Wallace said.

    Moore blossomed into an all-state receiver for Wallace, landing as's 8th-best player in Kentucky his senior year. The home-state Wildcats, enamored with a four-star prospect from Lexington, didn't recruit Moore. The Gamecocks gladly scooped him up.

    Moore also owns the most distinctive nickname of any Gamecock's high school alma mater: the Bowling Green HS "Purples." Coach Wallace can take it from here:

    "It's basically a spirit. Our logo would look very much like a ghost. It's always been the Purples. It's something we take pride in - and take ridicule for from our opponents," Wallace said.

    At left: D.L. Moore. At right: Not D.L. Moore's high school mascot.

    And Finally... Joker Phillips and new defensive coordinator Rick Minter first worked together in 1997, when Minter, then the head coach of Cincinnati, hired Phillips as his wide receivers coach. Also on that staff was a young defensive coordinator who served tours of duty in that capacity at Morehead State and New Mexico Highlands. You may have heard of him: current New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan.

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before South Carolina and Kentucky hit the field.

    October 2, 2011

    Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from a blustery night at Williams-Brice:

    What Happened: The Stats. If you visit this space, you know I'm a fanatical explorer of stats. They offer insights. They give clues. They help you with predictions. But at the end of the day, stats exist in the abstract. It takes players to pump life - and truth - into them. To reinforce them, or render them meaningless. Heading into Saturday's game, Auburn's defensive numbers didn't exactly suggest menace. But Carolina couldn't make the plays to capitalize on them. And a team that seemed to play on borrowed time against Vanderbilt, fittingly, couldn't find an extra :02 at the end.

    Some of the bigger turnarounds from Saturday:

  • Auburn ranked 119th in the nation in Time of Possession (24:03). The Tigers had a nearly 12-minute edge against the Gamecocks.

  • Auburn ranked 107 in the nation in sacks (3.0). With South Carolina shuffling its deck due to left tackle Kyle Nunn's injury, the Tigers equaled that total Saturday.

  • Auburn ranked last in the nation in 3rd-down defense (59.4%). Why could the Gamecocks only muster 2 of 10 third-downs (20%)? Their average distance to go was 10.6 yards. In the land of "3rd and long," even underwhelming defenses can make stops.

    3rd down distances vs. Auburn: 3, 5, 14, 17, 13, 3, 11, 10, 10, 20

    Here's what we wrote on Friday (I'll spare you the scroll-down): "[Offensive coordinator Gus] Malzahn's whole raison d'etre is to wear down defenses with his fast-break style, and scramble an opponent's ability to make substitutions and checks. Auburn's plays-per-minute average is roughly the same as it was in 2010. However, the Tigers' problems on third down defense (a nation's-worst 59.4% conversion rate) have allowed opponents to scarf up time of possession. When they come back on the field, defenses feel fresher and less vulnerable to the physical and mental breakdowns that Malzahn's offense forces."

    Did Auburn's 92 offensive plays - a result of its defense bowing up on 3rd down - drain the Gamecocks? It certainly didn't help.

    Long third-down conversions made life difficult for the Gamecocks.

    Drive On: I didn't include it on my Friday "Inside The Chart." In hindsight, I should have. Check out the job South Carolina and Auburn did in preventing long drives:

    Drives of 10+ plays allowed
    South CarolinaAuburn
    Games 1-4415

  • On a night when long fields were the norm, South Carolina didn't have a drive that lasted five plays or longer until its final possession. With the ball at its own 20 and 1:38 to play, the Gamecocks urgently needed a march. By the time they found their rhythm, it was too late.

    Stat I've Never Seen Before: At one point, Auburn running back Michael Dyer had 41 carries... and South Carolina had run 42 plays.

    Hidden Yards: Gene Chizik evangelizes about the "hidden yards," or the yards won or lost from special teams. I scribbled in my notes this week: "Aub. Special Teams - might be strongest phase of team." With the wind whipping and South Carolina unable to climb out of its own half of the field, Chizik's "hidden yards" came to bear.

    Joey Scribner-Howard grinded out punts in blustery conditions. It wasn't enough to overturn a sizable field-position advantage for Auburn.

    Hail to... Senior defensive end and all-around havoc merchant Melvin Ingram. When not turning himself into quarterback Barrett Trotter's personal backpack, Ingram finished off plays with remarkable regularity. The senior's 11 tackles were as many as he had all season. Ingram finished with a sick stat line: 11T, 5.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 QBH, and an INT. A second straight SEC Defensive Player of the Week award would not be out of the question. If so, Ingram would be the first player to win back-to-back SEC Defensive Player of the Week awards since......?

    Closing Thought: Remember last year's Florida win? The Clemson dismantling? The 38 points against Tennessee, most ever by South Carolina in the history of the series? All of those wins happened after Carolina's most dispiriting loss, a 31-28 defeat to Kentucky. When you think of those halcyon wins, does the Kentucky loss overshadow them? Of course not. A loss in Week Five need not define the Gamecocks. And in the last five regular-season losses to Auburn, South Carolina rebounded to win the next game.

    That's the focus: to make the remaining games noteworthy for their accomplishments, not Saturday's game galling for what it lacked. Kentucky beckons. We'll be waiting.

    September 30, 2011

    Auburn gets an offense that didn't exactly scorch the Earth last week.

    South Carolina gets a defense that has had trouble catching a cold, much less opposing ball-carriers.

    Both the Gamecocks and Tigers face an opponent that could cure them of their ills Saturday. The Tigers (3-1, 1-0 SEC) have been mired in defensive numbers which rank near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The defending national champions have had trouble - well - defending. College football royalty has suddenly landed among the dregs of society. They'll face a South Carolina team (4-0, 2-0 SEC) whose offense floundered and left Steve Spurrier frustrated in a 21-3 win over Vanderbilt. Spurrier said on "Carolina Calls" that the interceptions (4), penalties (10), and play-call mishaps (several) left him as aggravated as he had ever been in his coaching career.

    Yes, it's a return bout of last December's SEC Championship. But in preparing for this week's game, the words "rematch" and "revenge" have rung hollow. Both teams have enough internal issues to worry about. Words like "reversal" and "recharge" seem more appropriate. South Carolina and Auburn have the opponent they want; now we'll see if they get the results they want. Enjoy your pre-snap reads, including our three Friday "Did You Know's," as War Eagle swoops in on Columbia:

    Collateral Damage: Auburn's defensive woes have had another consequence: Gus Malzahn's tempo-crazy offense can't be nearly as effective. Malzahn's whole raison d'etre is to wear down defenses with his fast-break style, and scramble their ability to make substitutions and checks. Auburn's plays-per-minute average is roughly the same as it was in 2010. However, the Tigers' problems on third down defense (a nation's-worst 59.4% conversion rate) have allowed opposing offenses to scarf up time of possession. When they come back on the field, defenses feel fresher and less vulnerable to the physical and mental breakdowns that Malzahn's offense forces. If South Carolina can grind out long, taxing drives - and with an ox like Marcus Lattimore, they're certainly capable - the Carolina defense may reap the biggest benefit.

    Did You Know Pt. I: Auburn has allowed 73 plays from scrimmage of 10 yards or longer, second-most in the nation behind Memphis.

    On a Cloud? Stephen Garcia's right arm has been under the microscope this week. His wide receivers deserve some of the attention, too. Following Auburn's 42-38 comeback victory over Utah State, head coach Gene Chizik simplified his defensive playbook in the hopes that his team would think less and play faster. Auburn played mostly "cloud coverage" last year, meaning two safeties and a cornerback covered the deep zone. The Tigers have switched to mostly press coverage this year. Garcia shouldn't face a fire-breathing pass rush - Auburn has 3.0 sacks, one fewer than Gamecock freshman Jadeveon Clowney. Garcia should have time in the pocket to go through his progressions. The Gamecock receivers need to help by making crisp cuts, and separating from their defenders in press coverage.

    Stephen Garcia will need help from his receiving corps.

    Man to Stop: Tigers running back Michael Dyer. The Auburn papers have wondered when Chizik will give his 5'9," 210-pound sophomore a heavier workload. Dyer ranks third in the SEC in rushing behind Marcus Lattimore and Alabama's Trent Richardson, but has done so on 45 fewer carries than Lattimore. An excellent between-the-tackles runner, Dyer has been especially effective this year on sweep plays where he tucks behind an H-back and pulling guard. His speed and bear-like strength make him difficult to take down when he hits a hole. Quarterback Barrett Trotter was hurried 12 times by a Florida Atlantic defense that won't be mistaken for the '85 Bears. To neutralize Carolina's pass rush, will Chizik make Dyer his workhorse - and will the Gamecocks be ready for him?

    Auburn running back Michael Dyer.

    Lost... & Found: Do you want the bad news first? South Carolina has committed 14 fumbles, most in the nation. Fortunately, the Gamecocks have recovered their last 10.

    Did You Know Pt. II: Auburn linebacker Eltoro Freeman's nickname? "The Bull," naturally.

    Unleash the Byrd: Gamecock coaches will wait until game day to decide whether to clear -- for takeoff, and for the game -- freshman wide receiver Damiere Byrd. The 5'9," 161-pound Byrd has gained buzz inside the Palmetto Proving Grounds for his blinding speed during pre-season camp. A native of Sicklerville, N.J., Byrd ran a 10.41 100-meter dash as a high school senior, the ninth-fastest non-wind aided time in the nation last year. How does Byrd's time compare to other Gamecock speedsters coming out of high school? I channeled my inner Curtis Frye and did the research:

    PlayerTop 100m Dash Time - High School
    Damiere Byrd10.41
    Bryce Sherman10.51
    Marty Markett10.66
    Chris Culliver10.69
    Ace Sanders10.98

    (Times courtesy of

    Granted, there's a difference between "track fast" and "football fast." But I asked Ace Sanders - himself possessed of blazing speed - for his experiences running against Byrd.

    "You watch other guys that you may think are fast. When you line them up next to him, there's no competition," Ace told me in an interview that will air Saturday on "Countdown to Kickoff." "I watched him a couple times on the Internet. We were indoors doing sprints after practice. My takeoff was a little quicker than his, so I jumped out on him. But then it was like, `Pshhhhoooom.'"

    Gamecock fans may finally see for themselves Saturday.

    Freshman wide receiver Damiere Byrd.

    Did You Know Pt. III: It's not relevant to the game, but a fun piece of trivia nonetheless. One-time Auburn coach John Heisman, father of the most famous pose in college football, also had a dark side to his coaching career. Heisman was head basketball coach at Georgia Tech in 1909 when the Engineers lost to Georgia 78-9. The 69-point margin of defeat remains the worst loss in Georgia Tech history.

    Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our pre-game coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you then.

    September 28, 2011

    Since when did facing a defending national champion feel so... routine? The Gamecocks have now faced the previous year's national champion in five consecutive seasons (Florida 2007, LSU 2008, Florida 2009, Alabama 2010, Auburn 2011), a feat that may be unmatched in college football history. None of those champs, though, entered with as few familiar faces - and as many unresolved issues -- as the Tigers willl on Saturday. Auburn didn't exactly run roughshod in a 30-14 victory over Florida Atlantic, a team that lost its previous two games by a combined 85-3. The Tigers rank near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in several defensive categories:

  • 90th Nation Pass Defense (251.0 ypg)
  • 107th Nation Sacks (3.0 - Jadeveon Clowney has 4.0)
  • 110th Nation Total Defense (477.5 ypg)
  • 112th Nation Rush Defense (226.5 ypg)
  • 120th Nation (Last) 3rd down defense (59.4%)
  • Even "Spirit" the War Eagle has had trouble finding his bearings. The Gamecocks come in with issues of their own: interceptions, inconsistencies in run blocking, and miscommunications in play-calling hampered them against Vanderbilt. Auburn thrives on turning games into track meets. Fittingly, Saturday's game may hinge on which team finds its footing first.

    On to our weekly journey beyond the obvious...

    More on Wounded Warriors: Saturday's Wounded Warrior game holds extra meaning for Gamecock middle linebacker Rodney Paulk. His father, Leonard, spent 22 years in the military, reaching the rank of First Sergeant. Paulk was born in Savannah, Ga., and befitting a military brat upbringing, he lived in Columbus, Ga. (where his younger brother Leonard III was born), Hawaii, North Carolina, and the Mojave desert of California - literally criss-crossing the country four times - before settling in Columbia in the ninth grade. Rodney told me it took his family four days to drive from Ft. Irwin in California to their new home in Columbia.

    A sixth-year senior, Paulk has graduated with a degree in one of the more unusual fields of study at South Carolina: marine science. This week, Paulk finally satisfied my curiosity on why he chose marine science as his major. His parents grew up in Miami, and when they'd visit their relatives, they'd always check out the wildlife in Florida. That, and a lifelong love of animals, spurred Paulk to his major. The years of study have served him well - few possess more animal instincts on the field than Paulk.

    Sixth-year senior Rodney Paulk has a special connection to Saturday's Wounded Warrior game.

    Family Tradition: It seems poetic that a star quarterback would raise a wide receiver son. Junior Emory Blake, the Tigers' top wideout, is the son of former East Carolina quarterback and 14-year NFL veteran Jeff Blake. The soft-handed Blake has caught a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games, the second-longest streak by an Auburn receiver in school history. If past is prologue, then the Gamecocks may torment the Blake family again. Jeff Blake played at Williams-Brice Stadium twice, losing both games by a combined score of 84-21. His numbers don't paint a rosy picture:

    Jeff Blake passing numbers at Williams-Brice Stadium
    19897-15-89-0-037-7 (L)
    19902-15-25-0-147-14 (L)
    Total9-30-114-0-1 (30% comp.)84-21

    In addition, the man who schemed against Jeff Blake in those blowout wins will do the same against his son. Brad Lawing, in his first tour of duty with the Gamecocks, coached the defensive line in both of those wins.

    The Gamecocks will try to do to Auburn WR Emory Blake what they did to his father, former ECU QB and NFL veteran Jeff Blake.

    Stat of the Week: The Gamecocks have a -6 turnover margin in the 1st half.... And a +7 turnover margin in the 2nd half.

    Built To Last? When turning over rocks for clues to a game, I always find a few "numbers or history?" questions. Do you believe more in what the statistics say, or what past reputations tell you? Case in point: Auburn has been notorious escape artists under coach Gene Chizik. In three seasons under their head Houdini (and his trusted sidekick, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn), the Tigers have won six times when trailing by 10 or more points. They're also an amazing 8-0 in games decided by four points or less. All signs point to an unflinching team that can pick a lock under pressure.

    This year's numbers tell a different story. In the fourth quarter, Auburn averages just 4:26 in time of possession, while opponents have converted 15-of-20 third downs. If Saturday's game gets close in the fourth quarter, the Tigers may not have the defensive stamina to stop Carolina. Numbers or reputation - which dominates Saturday?

    And Finally... Vanderbilt had the most returning starters in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Auburn has the fewest.

    Fewest Returning Starters - FBS
    1.Vanderbilt (21)
    120.Auburn (6)

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before War Eagle descends from the Plains to the Palmetto State.

    September 25, 2011

    A lopsided game, to be sure. Spot-on defensively, but spotty offensively. In the Southeastern Conference, though, Substance will always be a 7.5-point favorite over Style. Performances can be corrected; results can't. And at 4-0, South Carolina will have its first undefeated record entering October since 2001. "Notes, Quotes, and Anecdotes" - a blog post, like the game, dominated by defense -- from the broadcast booth at Williams-Brice:

    No Soup For You: Gamecock defenders have a new way to celebrate big plays: pretending to eat from a soup spoon. I first saw Antonio Allen doing it following his interception return for a touchdown against Georgia. Melvin Ingram pantomimed it after planting a Vanderbilt ball-carrier in the 2nd quarter. I asked Melvin for the story behind the gesture:

    "It means we're eating. We're hungry," Ingram told me outside the press conference room, an incandescent smile stretched across his face. "I saw one of my homies in the NFL doing it [he couldn't remember which one], and I brought it here. All of us on the defense do it now."

    Eating time: the Gamecock defense has a new gesture for big plays.

    If the Gamecock defense was eating, the Vanderbilt offense was starving. South Carolina smothered Vanderbilt all night, forcing Larry Smith into hurried checkdowns or stringing out ball-carriers for little gain. How often does a stadium chant the name of not one, but two defensive players? Led by Ingram's incredible stat line in the first half (4.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, and a fumble recovery for a TD), the Gamecocks piled up dominant numbers against the Commodores. A couple of other breakdowns from my stat sheet:

  • Vanderbilt had a 9-play, 37-yard drive in the 2nd quarter. Their other 12 drives netted 40 yards.
  • Wide receiver Jonathan Krause had nine catches for 55 yards. The rest of his teammates produced 20 yards.
  • After two dismal games to start the season, folks wondered when the results would begin to match the reputation of the Carolina defense. Saturday night, we found our answer - and the results were as startling as they were suffocating.

    South Carolina's defense rolled up a dominant performance against Vanderbilt.

    Tight Squeeze: James Franklin came to Vanderbilt with an offensive pedigree, having led prolific offenses at Kansas State and Maryland. Saturday night felt like few others in the 39 year-old's career. Vandy's 77 yards of total offense was the fourth-lowest in a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) game this year:

    TeamOpponentDateTotal Yards
    Western IllinoisMissouri9/1744
    Florida AtlanticMichigan State9/1048
    VanderbiltSouth Carolina9/2477

    Two of those four teams (Western Illinois and Presbyterian) play in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The other, Florida Atlantic, was ranked last in the nation in Phil Steele's pre-season power ratings.

    But wait, there's more: Vanderbilt's total was the lowest by a BCS team this year by 64 yards. Boston College scratched out 144 total yards against UCF on September 10.

    Forecast: Clowney, With a Chance of Pain: After Jadeveon Clowney hurdled tailback Zac Stacy and stripped the ball from quarterback Larry Smith, all I could muster on our telecast was "What on Earth..." (hey, you can't be eloquent every time). The nation's #1-ranked high school recruit put on an otherworldly display of athleticism Saturday, finishing with a pair of sacks and forced fumbles. Through four games, Clowney leads all freshmen nationally with 4.0 sacks. No other freshman has more than 2.0. Steve Spurrier revealed on "Carolina Calls" that he wanted Clowney on the field for 80 percent of his defense's plays. Clowney made them count.

    Jadeveon Clowney's sack and forced fumble of Vandy quarterback Larry Smith in the 3rd quarter. Clowney has 4.0 sacks through 4 games.

    Third And Down And Out: On Wednesday, we pointed out Vanderbilt's poor 3rd-down conversion rate, and the need for Carolina to force long 3rd-down plays. Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith had a checkered reputation for throwing downfield, and the Commodores were missing top wide receiver John Cole due to injury. The Gamecocks delivered in a major way. In 14 third-down situations, Vanderbilt averaged 3rd and 9.1 yards to go. In the 2nd half, that number jumped to a ludicrous 3rd and 11.3 yards to go.

    Vanderbilt yards to go on 3rd down:
    1st Half2, 12, 3, 7, 10, 12, 4, 10
    2ndHalf9, 7, 9, 16, 9, 18

    Navy ran effectively on 1st and 2nd down, setting up manageable conversions which played to their strengths (i.e., running the ball). By shutting down Vanderbilt early, Carolina funneled them toward an obvious weakness.

    And Finally... The Gamecocks sit at the top of the SEC East with a 4-0 record. If you're grumbling, you're only blocking the view. Check back next week as we share our thoughts for the rematch with defending national champion Auburn.

    September 23, 2011

    Every broadcast is a treasure hunt. Dig deep enough, read enough articles, and remix enough statistics, and you'll inevitably find new clues on how to interpret a game. Bad preparation leads to boring broadcasts (you may have heard them once upon a time). We aim for neither. Enjoy your pre-snap reads (including our three Friday "Did You Know's") before the Gamecocks try to find their swagger suppressants for the Commodores:

    Matchup to Watch: Though quiet last week (2 rec., 35 yds.), the sight of a Commodore tri-corner hat sends Alshon Jeffery into a froth. Over the last two seasons, Jeffery has the two highest receiving-yard games by an FBS opponent against the Vandy defense - by a wide margin.

    Player (School)YearReceiving Yards
    Alshon Jeffery (SC)2009161
    Alshon Jeffery (SC)2010158
    Shay Hodge (Ole Miss)2009122
    Aaron Hernandez (UF)2009120
    Embry Peeples (GT)2009117
    Kris Durham (UGA)2010112

    Elon's Aaron Mellette caught 180 yards in the Commodores' season opener, but they were mostly inconsequential in a 45-14 Vanderbilt blowout.

    Jeffery will likely oppose senior cornerback Casey Hayward, who finished third in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) with 17 pass deflections in 2010. If Vanderbilt blitzes as persistently as it did in its first three games, that could leave Jeffery in single-man coverages.

    Alshon Jeffery has feasted on Vanderbilt during his Gamecock career.

    Did You Know Pt. I: Vanderbilt weakside linebacker Tristan Strong is the nephew of former Gamecocks offensive linemen Tami Tarbush ('75-77) and Ricky Payne ('74-75, '77). Tarbush and Payne lined up alongside each other at "quick guard" and "quick tackle" in Jim Carlen's triple-option offense. Tarbush married Payne's sister, meaning the Gamecocks had in-laws who played side-by-side on the O-Line. Strong's mother is Ricky Payne's sister.

    No Give-and-Takes: The Gamecocks do not want some cheeky franchise owner in the West End to post a similar sign if South Carolina coughs it up against the Commodores. Vanderbilt's 3-0 record has come off a torrent of turnovers - the `Dores lead the SEC with a +6 turnover margin and lead the nation with 10 interceptions. The Commodores defense has scored as many touchdowns (3) as it has allowed (3).

    That play has caught the attention of Steve Spurrier. "All 11 of their players are active and play well," Spurrier said this week. "They have good athletes back there. They play their assignments. When they get into a zone, they're spread out nicely across the field. They don't mess up. I'm impressed watching them play." Can the Gamecocks - who have been vexed by points off turnovers this season - cut off the spigot on Saturday?

    Stat Showdown of the Week: They've had their stumbles - a Connor Shaw fumble, a goal-line interception by Stephen Garcia, a failed 4th-and-2 - but when the Gamecocks have crossed into the red zone, they've punched it home. South Carolina has 10 red zone touchdowns this year, compared to 0 red zone field goals. Translation: the Gamecocks' drives haven't stalled out, forcing them to settle for chip-shot field goals. Only Northern Illinois, San Diego State, Army, and Northwestern have as many red-zone TD's without a red-zone field goal.

    TeamRed Zone TD'sRed Zone Trips
    South Carolina1013
    Vanderbilt Opps.15

    They now face a Vanderbilt team that has allowed 1 red zone touchdown in 5 trips, a 20% rate that ranks 5th in the nation. Can the Commodores keep it close by forcing the Gamecocks to trade "7's" for "3's"?

    Did You Know Pt. II: Vanderbilt defensive tackle Rob Lohr leads the Commodores with 5.0 Tackles for Loss (TFL). He may also be the only player South Carolina will face this year who was home-schooled.

    Who Blitzes Better? After a school-record 41 sacks in 2011, the Gamecocks have been held to just 2 sacks this year. But before you impugn them for a lack of production, remember that they haven't faced offenses which have lent themselves to a rush. East Carolina lined up in shotgun, and let quarterback Dominique Davis unload quickly; Navy's triple-option made the passing game a Pacific delicacy. As we noted Wednesday on "Inside The Chart," Vanderbilt has been susceptible to pressure. Despite Smith's escapability, Vanderbilt ranks 109th in the nation with 10 sacks allowed. Will Saturday be the night that Ellis Johnson unleashes the full brunt of his disguising, disruptive, vertical pass rush? Similarly, can the Gamecocks contain Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's pressure-heavy packages, which have led to an SEC-leading 8 sacks and a nation's-leading 10 interceptions? How each quarterback manages the other team's blitzing - and whether he can achieve Kellen Moore-like efficiency against it - may decide the game.

    The Gamecocks will try to unleash their pass rush on Vanderbilt.

    A New Mr. Smith: Despite earning Alabama Mr. Football honors as a high school senior, Larry Smith escaped the clutches of his in-state SEC schools, opting to play quarterback for Bobby Johnson at Vanderbilt. His career has been inconsistent, with flashes of brilliance muddied by a lifetime sub-50% completion percentage. But at the mast of Vanderbilt's 3-0 start, the dreadlocked Smith has found new life under head coach (and former college quarterback) James Franklin. I asked "Voice of the Commodores" Joe Fisher for his thoughts on Smith's maturation:

    "He no longer tries to make the spectacular play, or force the ball into tight coverage. He'll throw it away and live to play another day. He's also developed better touch on his medium range passes. He's making solid decisions, and with his ability to run the ball, or throw on the run, he's become a challenge for opposing defenses," Fisher said. D.J. Swearinger told me that South Carolina's defensive coaches counted 12 missed tackles against Navy, a marked improvement from the week before. Will that ability, plus more simplified play-calling as Steve Spurrier suggested, help the Gamecocks contain Smith?

    Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith.

    No Waiting Around: For a team playing with aforementioned swagger, South Carolina cannot let Vanderbilt get energized with an early lead. In 2010, South Carolina enjoyed its greatest success in the 1st quarter, outscoring opponents by a combined 130-67. In 2011, though, the Gamecocks have been outscored outscored 20-7 while committing two turnovers. That does not bode well against a Vanderbilt team which has jumped on opponents to a 21-3 edge in the first quarter.

    Did You Know, Pt. III: We have a new clubhouse leader for most eccentric piece of information in an opposing team's game notes. Courtesy of the great Larry Leathers at Vanderbilt:

    "Sean Spencer, Defensive Line ... Energetic DL coach... Encourages players to attack like `wild African dogs'...."


    Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our coverage starts at 4 p.m. EST Saturday on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network.. We'll see you at Williams-Brice.

    September 21, 2011

    These aren't your father's Commodores.

    Heck, these aren't even your older brother's Commodores.

    Head coach James Franklin has engineered a rapid turnaround in his first season at Vanderbilt, already surpassing the Commodores' win total from 2010 (2-10). When he hasn't whipped up the masses for bowling trips, Franklin has whipped a formerly downtrodden team into one imbued with energy, fire, and - clutch the pearls - swagger. It might even cause this woebegone Vanderbilt fan to change the name of his blog. Vandy's 30-7 beatdown of Ole Miss Saturday was its largest margin of victory in an SEC game since 1971. The Commodores lead the nation with 10 interceptions, three of which they've returned for touchdowns. With a lineup populated by redshirt upperclassmen, the Commodores have shown they aren't a team to be taken lightly. Steve Spurrier needs no reminder of that: though 4-2 against Vanderbilt as head coach of South Carolina, his average margin of victory is a mere 4.2 points.

    First-year head coach James Franklin has Vanderbilt playing inspired.

    After a 3-0 start, the Commodores will try to (Franklin) mint a win over the Gamecocks. South Carolina will try for the complete game that has eluded them this season. Your father, your older brother, and the rest of the family will be watching.

    More notes from our broadcast prep:

    Third's The Word: Franklin had a built-in advantage when he arrived at Vandy after a stint as offensive coordinator at Maryland: Vanderbilt returned 21 starters, tops among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams. Thick on experience, they've proven quick studies in Franklin's system.

    However, Vanderbilt also has some statistics that defy gravity:

  • Vandy ranks 111th in the nation in sacks allowed (10), the only team in the bottom 30 of that stat nationally with a 3-0 record.
  • Vandy ranks 109th in the nation in 3rd-down conversions (24.4%), the only team in the bottom 20 of that stat nationally with a 3-0 record.

    After combing through Vanderbilt's play-by-play charts, I found another troubling number: the Commodores have converted just 1 of their last 14 3rd-down plays from 7 yards or longer. Vanderbilt does not have a big-play receiver like Alshon Jeffery, and top wideout John Cole will miss Saturday's game with a leg injury. It's an old trope of coaching, and it could apply to any game, but South Carolina needs to force 3rd-and-longs from the Commodores.

    As Previously Tweeted (@GamecockRadio): It was scary enough that Marcus Lattimore torpedoed Navy for 246 rushing yards. It was even scarier when Lattimore confided that he saw 300 rushing yards on the film. In other words, his own running mistakes cost him 54 extra yards.

    Lattimore might lick his chops at the prospect of facing another SEC East opponent Saturday. In five career games against Eastern Division teams, Lattimore has averaged 166.7 rushing yards per game.

    SEC East OpponentLattimore Rushing YardsOpp. Rushing Yards
    Georgia '1018261
    Kentucky79 (1st half only)52
    Georgia '11176188

  • A sprained ankle held Lattimore to a spectator against Vanderbilt last season. When he lines up Saturday, the Commodores will be waiting for him: Vanderbilt ranks 18th in the nation, allowing 2.45 yards per carry.

    Marcus Lattimore has shown a taste for SEC East opponents in his early career.

    Not All Lattimore: Steve Spurrier has deflected questions about Stephen Garcia's accuracy, assuring his satisfaction with the redshirt senior's play. Garcia could squelch whatever doubts remain on Saturday. Did you know: Garcia has his highest career completion percentage versus an SEC opponent against Vanderbilt? Garcia has connected on an astounding 73.6% of his throws against the Black and Gold, including a career high-tying 31 completions in Nashville last year.

    OpponentCompletions-AttemptsComp. % (Min. 2 games)

    That should make the matchup of Garcia versus the Vanderbilt secondary - which ranks 5th in the nation in pass efficiency defense - a fun one to watch.

    Dandy vs. Vandy: Stephen Garcia has posted strong numbers against the Commodores for his career.

    Magic Number: South Carolina is 14-0 all-time against Vanderbilt when scoring 20+ points.

    Broken Record? When grading film, Gamecock coaches keep a tally of their team's missed tackles. D.J. Swearinger told me that Gamecock coaches only counted 12 missed tackles against Navy, a steep decline from the week before against Georgia.

    After fielding one of the most anemic offenses in the nation last year, Vanderbilt has looked invigorated under Franklin -- even if the stats don't show it yet. The Commodores have a mobile quarterback in three-year starter Larry Smith, along with a pocket-sized hurricane in 5'9" tailback Zac Stacy. Sure-handed tackling will again be at a premium Saturday. Can Swearinger make Smith recant his statement Monday that Williams-Brice Stadium is "one of the most fun stadiums I've played in"?

    And Finally... Vanderbilt senior defensive end Tim Fugger led the Commodores with four forced fumbles last season. A native of Oak Brook, Ill., Fugger came to Vandy after (presumably) turning down overtures from his hometown school: Hamburger U. Oak Brook, Ill., is home to McDonald's world headquarters, and has a worldwide management training center named "Hamburger University." More than 5,000 "students" attend every year, almost as many as Vanderbilt's undergraduate enrollment.

    How do I know this? Because Oak Brook, Ill., is my hometown, too. We haven't produced many FBS-level talents over the years, mainly because this guy was our defensive coordinator.

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before Vanderbilt and South Carolina collide.

    September 18, 2011

    Navy may have the triple option, but South Carolina still has an incredible single option. Marcus Lattimore carried another heavy payload Saturday, and with him the demons of 1984 for Gamecock fans. The result was a 24-21 victory over a Navy team that, as expected, did not beat itself. Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from a hard-fought victory in the home opener:

    More Lattimore: Do you think the Granthams will have something to commiserate about at Thanksgiving dinner? A week after Lattimore terrorized Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. for 176 rushing yards, he torched his younger brother, Navy outside linebackers coach Tony Grantham, for a career-high 246 yards. Two weeks, two Granthams, 422 yards.

    How impressive was Lattimore's performance? Navy's top four tacklers were linebackers, a clear sign that Lattimore had penetrated to the second level of the defense. Navy's four starting linebackers accounted for 42 tackles; the rest of the defense had 31 tackles combined. On Friday, we noted that the Mids' top three outside linebackers - starter Jarred Shannon (shoulder), starter Mason Graham (knee), and key backup Keegan Wetzel (concussion) - would not play. Junior Tra'ves Bush (a retrofitted safety) and junior Brye French filled in commendably, finishing with a team-high 13 and 12 tackles. It also shows that Lattimore broke through the Navy line, and forced an undermanned linebacking corps to make plays. That explains a lot about his 246 rushing yards.

    Marcus Lattimore rushing yards by quarter: 7-82 (1st), 7-35 (2nd), 11-72 (3rd), 12-57 (4th).

    Two Much: Based on my research, Lattimore's 422 rushing yards are the second-most in a two-game stretch in South Carolina history:

    PlayerDateOpponent (Rushing Yards)Combined yards
    Steve Wadiak10/19-10/27/50Clemson (256), George Washington (182)438 yards
    Marcus Lattimore9/10-9/17/11Georgia (176), Navy (246)422 yards
    Duce Staley9/7-9/14/96UCF (187), Georgia (170)357 yards
    George Rogers11/8-11/15/80The Citadel (179), Wake Forest (177)356 yards

    Lattimore leads the nation in rushing yards through three weeks, jumping from 7th to 1st after Saturday. I know he's young, but something tells me this kid could develop into a player.

    A First-Down Story: Navy has 10 upperclassmen starters on offense, and that experience showed in its execution. The Midshipmen gashed, gouged, and gobsmacked the Gamecocks with their triple-option, ringing up 6.6 yards per gain (16 plays, 86 yards) on 1st down in the 1st half. As a result, Navy's average distance on 3rd down was an impressive 2.3 yards to go.

    When a defense forces 2nd- or 3rd-and-longs against the triple-option, the system naturally becomes less effective. Give South Carolina credit for coaxing those situations from Navy, and making it difficult for the Midshipmen to convert. In the second half, the Midshipmen averaged only 2.5 yards per gain on 1st down (8-20), and 6.6 yards to go on 3rd down. Look at the following table - the numbers almost reverse themselves:

    NavyAvg. Yds. Gained on 1st DownAvg. Yds. to Go on 3rd Down
    1st Half6.62.3
    2nd Half2.56.6

    Quarterback Kriss Proctor does not possess as strong an arm as his predecessor Ricky Dobbs, a fact acknowledged by the Navy coaching staff in my research. By stuffing Navy on 1st and 2nd down, the Gamecocks forced Proctor to make throws - which in turn unleashed the Gamecock pass rush.

    Negatives into Positives: South Carolina waited until the 12:45 mark of the 4th quarter to hold Navy to its first non-positive-yardage carry. Navy's previous 38 carries had all gone for a gain. Better late than never: that triggered a turnaround which ultimately stunted any Navy rally. After averaging 6.97 yards per carry in the first three quarters, Navy only managed 1.77 yards per carry in the 4th quarter. Jadeveon Clowney again proved beastly, chasing Proctor from the pocket or blowing him up before he could initiate a pitch.

    Freshman Jadeveon Clowney roared to life in the fourth quarter against Navy.

    Yellow Not Needed:South Carolina has now faced the nation's two least-penalized teams: Navy (5) and East Carolina (6). At one point last year, the Gamecocks faced the two most-penalized teams in the nation (Southern Miss and Troy).

    Best Notes That Didn't Make The Broadcast: Navy outside linebacker Brye French was the first player from Alabama to be named a USA Lacrosse High School All-American. He spends his Springs as a short-stick defensive midfielder for the Middies... Kriss Proctor was recruited as a safety by Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, and invited to walk on at Stanford. The Naval Academy was the only school that recruited him as a quarterback... Proctor's mother, Sandy, originally refused to send her son's highlight tape to Navy. Proctor snuck a copy to a family friend who played defensive end for the Midshipmen.

    And Finally... Good luck to the Naval Academy. Good riddance to the triple option. On to Vanderbilt...

    September 16, 2011

    Did you hear that Navy likes to run the ball?

    Or that Navy beat South Carolina once? 1984, maybe?

    If you're pining for more pertinent information before Williams-Brice Stadium opens its 77th season, we're here to help. Your pre-snap reads (including our three Friday "Did You Know's") before the Gamecocks and Midshipmen re-launch their rivalry:

    Option This: A ground-based offense usually implies a team methodically marches the ball downfield. That's not the case with the Middies. Navy has gained notoriety for its quick-strike offense, and the Midshipmen have shown a devastating aptitude for that in 2011:

  • 6 touchdowns of 40 yards or longer.
  • 7 touchdown scoring drives of 5 plays or less.
  • 6 touchdown scoring drives of 2 minutes or less.
  • Touchdowns on each of its opening drives, with a 3-play, 80-yard score against Delaware and a 4-play, 61-yard score against Western Kentucky.

    Navy senior quarterback Kriss Proctor.

    Coaches have called senior quarterback Kriss Proctor the fastest, most elusive running QB they've had in the triple-option era. Behind an offensive line that returns four of five starters, Proctor has rushed for a team-high 199 yards in 2011. Sound tackling - an issue during South Carolina's first two games - will be at a premium Saturday. So will the ability to shed blocks and get to the perimeter on option pitches. The Gamecocks need their elite athletes to play assignment football, and not over-pursue in their desire to make plays. Otherwise, the Middies could rip off aircraft carrier-length plays at nuclear submarine speed.

    Fortunately, the Gamecocks have an option veteran steering them through the process. Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson ran the option as head coach of The Citadel from '01-03. He also game-planned against the version run by Navy, which Paul Johnson imported from Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern. Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, a former GSU assistant, said he studied 8 year-old film of their games against The Citadel to see how Johnson defends their system.

    If nothing else, Johnson has extra motivation to beat Navy: his two older brothers played football at West Point.

    Did You Know, Pt. I: Proctor is the first left-handed quarterback to start for the Naval Academy in its triple-option era (2002-present).

    Stat Showdown of the Week: When a team rushes as much as Navy, the possibility for fumbles exists. Despite their struggles, the Gamecocks have shown a penchant for punching the ball loose: South Carolina leads the nation with 6 forced fumbles.

    RankTeamForced Fumbles
    1.South Carolina6
    2.South Florida5
    East Carolina

  • About That Navy Defense... In many ways, Navy's defense is the opposite of South Carolina: an untested unit that has exceeded expectations. The Midshipmen returned only two full-time starters this year (DE Jabaree Tuani and S Kwesi Mitchell), yet held Delaware and Western Kentucky to a combined 31 points. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo even said after the Delaware game, "I couldn't be prouder of our team" (imagine Spurrier tossing that bouquet to his defense). Like Georgia, though, Niumatalolo must persevere through a severely banged-up linebacking corps. Starting outside linebacker Jarred Shannon will miss his second straight game with a shoulder injury, while another starter, senior Mason Graham will be sidelined with a knee injury. New starter Keegan Wetzel is also recovering from a concussion he suffered vs. Western Kentucky.

    Will Marcus Lattimore pick on another injury-riddled linebacking corps?

    Did a lack of experienced linebackers cost Georgia in the fourth quarter, when it needed to provide run support for Marcus Lattimore? Could a similar fate submarine the Middies? Expect Navy to heavily employ a fifth defensive back - likely Johnston, S.C., native and cousin of D.J. Swearinger, Tra'ves Bush.

    Did You Know, Part II: Navy calls its outside linebacker positions "Striker" and "Raider."

    There For The Taking? The audition continues for a wide receiver to complement Alshon Jeffery. Will those players have their shot against a tender Navy secondary? The Middies have just one returning starter in the defensive secondary, rover Kwesi Mitchell, a transplant from cornerback. Sophomore Shawn Lynch, who replaced four-year starter Wyatt Middleton at free safety, is a converted wide receiver who hadn't played defense since a few third-and-longs as a high school junior. Long pass plays dogged the Navy defense in pre-season camp, and remained an unsettled issue as the season started. The Middies rank 23rd in the nation in pass defense (148.0 ypg), but Saturday could be a perfect opportunity for South Carolina's wideouts to assert themselves. Gamecock receivers will need to make the hesitations, change-of-speeds, and subtle physical moves on their routes to get separation.

    Gamecock receivers like Ace Sanders face an inexperienced Navy secondary.

    Did You Know, Part III: Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo calls senior defensive end Jabaree Tuani "perhaps one of the best defensive linemen" to ever play at the Academy. A four-year starter, Tuani needs 10 sacks to tie the Naval Academy career record set by Andy Person, the brother of former Gamecock defensive end/tight end/offensive lineman/Swiss Army knife Fran Person ('01-05).

    Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our coverage starts at 3 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. Anchors aweigh.

    September 14, 2011

    Trends come and go in college football, but scoring never goes out of style. Thus, the triple-option still hangs around, cheerfully thumbing its nose at a game that has gotten bigger, faster, and stronger. Call it old-school if you want. The triple-option still grades on a steep curve. Spread offenses have - well, spread - but few playbooks make defenses look more foolish, or inspire more hold-your-breath moments, than the triple option. Once A- and B-backs start moving.... once blockers start trapping.... once the quarterback begins his legerdemain under center... the unease sets in, and never goes away.

    The triple-option has made Navy, first under Paul Johnson and now under Ken Niumatalolo, perennial upset threats in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The Gamecocks have seven short days to prepare for the Midshipmen, hoping they, too, won't suffer from PTSD (Post Triple-Option Stress Disorder). After allowing 79 points in its first two games, facing a sleight-of-hand offense like Navy's may not seem ideal. The Midshipmen lead the Football Bowl Subdivision with 400.5 rushing yards per game. They've converted 13 of 26 3rd downs. Their offense has also led to explosive results: Navy averaged 8 rushes per game of 10+ yards last year.

    Then again, Navy could provide the perfect test for South Carolina's besieged defense. True, the Gamecocks won't face many passing situations. But teams that run the triple-option don't beat themselves (Navy has committed a ridiculous two penalties in two games). Defending it requires a different level of mental quickness. Bad angles and poor form-tackling will get exposed. All of that can help the Gamecocks right the ship (pun intended). If the Gamecocks can conquer their mistakes on Saturday, they can conquer the triple option, an offense that continues to endure - and unnerve -- in college football.

    Navy leads the nation with 400.5 rushing yards per game.

    Other notes we've piled up for our broadcast:

    Pleading the Third: There's clutch, there's extremely clutch, and there's Alshon Jeffery clutch. Of his 10 catches this season, 9 have gone for a first down or touchdown. Jeffery's greatest attributes - his strength, his body control, his airborne dominance - come together in devastating harmony on third downs. Since his breakthrough game against Kentucky in 2009, Jeffery has caught a 3rd- or 4th-down pass that gave Carolina a first down in 23 of his last 24 games.

    Jeffery has made some phenomenal catches to move the chains, but the Gamecocks need other receivers to step up and become threats. While Jeffery has 9 catches for first downs or touchdowns, his teammates only have 3 combined (2 Sanders, 1 Lattimore). Also, take a look at how many 3rd-down catches Jeffery has made to extend a drive, compared to his teammates, over the last two seasons:

    Alshon Jeffery has caught a 3rd- or 4th-down pass that gave Carolina a first down in 23 of the last 24 games.

    Catches that have resulted in a first down (any down):
    YearJefferyRest of Team

    % of 3rd- or 4th-down passing plays that resulted in 1st down:
    YearJefferyRest of Team%

    In 2010, Jeffery's teammates caught 7 more passes on 3rd or 4th downs to extend drives. In 2011, they've fallen well off pace. Whether a correlation exists or not, South Carolina has only converted 38% of its third downs this year, down from 49% in 2010. The Gamecocks can't let secondaries key in on Jeffery on clear passing downs. If other wide receivers can spread the field, Jeffery will become more dangerous.

    Triple-Take: In most defenses, the middle linebacker calls out the checks. In that case, the Gamecocks should be in good hands with sixth-year senior Rodney Paulk. The Columbia, S.C., native played on a Richland Northeast HS team that ran a triple-option similar to Navy's.

    Close Call (Past Edition): Clinton native Clarence Long was the first Gamecock to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. After starring at Clinton HS, Long planned on attending the Naval Academy, but didn't have the transportation to go to Sumter to take a physical required by the Academy. Long opted for South Carolina instead.

    Close Call (Present Edition): Gamecock basketball coach Darrin Horn chose to attend Western Kentucky over recruiting overtures from the Naval Academy. The Middies beat Western Kentucky 40-19 last week.

    Coast to Coast: Navy has 19 states represented on its 2-deep roster.

    And Finally... Navy outside linebackers coach Tony Grantham is the brother of Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Wonder what they'll talk about this week? Hint: it rhymes with Farcus Flattimore.

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before the Gamecocks and Midshipmen take the field.

    September 11, 2011

    Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from another roller-coaster ride in Athens - this time with a much happier ending:

    It only required an interception return, a fumble return, and a fake punt for a touchdown, but South Carolina joined an exclusive list Saturday. Sanford Stadium, built by the hands of convict laborers, first opened its doors in 1929. Since then, it has played host to 417 home games for the University of Georgia. On Saturday, South Carolina scored the 4th-most points ever by an opponent between the hedges.

    Most Points by Opponent - Sanford Stadium History (82 years)
    4.South Carolina201145-42

    Steve Spurrier now owns two of the four highest-scoring performances by an opponent in the 82-year history of Sanford Stadium.

    The Self-Congratulation Section: We need to doff the chapeau for a couple of salient points made on last week's "Inside The Chart."

  • Melvin Ingram told us his teammates at Richmond County High School in Hamlet, N.C., gave him the nickname "Quick-Six" because of his penchant for scoring quick-strike touchdowns on offense and defense. It even inspired Ingram to change his jersey number from 9 to 6. As a national television audience witnessed - and an ESPN College GameDay helmet sticker validated -- nobody epitomized the "Quick-Six" more than Melvin Saturday.
  • Alshon Jeffery caught his first touchdown pass of the season, grabbing a 34-yard floater from Stephen Garcia to give Carolina a 7-6 lead. Georgia has an underrated cornerback tandem in seniors Branden Smith and Brandon Boykin, but we also warned that they had a flaw: each gave up 5 inches to the 6'4" Jeffery. Sure enough, after he had broken from his route, Jeffery out-jumped Boykin to make the touchdown catch.
  • Aaron Murray threw to eight different receivers Saturday. All-SEC tight end Orson Charles was not one of them. Charles, who finished with a career-high 109 receiving yards against Boise State, routinely found himself blanketed by Carolina linebackers when he flared out for a pass. Murray never seriously targeted him -- and the one time he did, Antonio Allen intercepted the pass for a touchdown.

    Was there any doubt that Melvin Ingram lived up to his "Quick-Six" nickname from high school?

    Blair Miss Project: Lost in all the scores Saturday was one that wasn't made. In the 2nd quarter, All-SEC placekicker Blair Walsh knuckled a 31-yard attempt wide left with the Bulldogs leading 6-0. Those three points proved costly in a 45-42 Gamecocks win. That the miscue came from Walsh made it more surprising: dating back to last season, Walsh had made his last seven field goal attempts inside of 40 yards.

    Statistical Oddity of the Week: South Carolina scored 31 points in the second half.... yet only converted 1 of 6 third downs.

    Hedge Trimmer: In a typically workmanlike, shoulder pad-rattling performance, sophomore Marcus Lattimore helped the Gamecocks control the clock in the 4th quarter. His one-cut-and-go running produced 94 yards on 13 carries, and allowed Carolina to seize a nearly 4-minute advantage in time of possession.

    It may not have felt like he strapped the offense to his back, but the numbers prove otherwise. Lattimore's 94 rushing yards and 13 carries were both career highs for a single quarter.

    OpponentQuarterNumber of carries
    Georgia '114th13 carries
    Georgia '102nd11 carries
    Alabama4th11 carries
    Florida1st11 carries
    Florida2nd10 carries
    Georgia '101st10 carries

  • OpponentQuarterYards gained
    Georgia '114th94 yards
    Troy1st91 yards
    Florida3rd85 yards
    Tennessee4th82 yards

    Marcus Lattimore quietly produced a career high in the 4th quarter against Georgia.

    And Finally... Without question, South Carolina has plenty of areas of improvement before Saturday's home opener against Navy. The secondary needs to defend quick throws and timing patterns better. Too many ball-carriers have slipped out of tacklers' hands. A reliable receiver needs to emerge opposite Alshon Jeffery. Stephen Garcia, a career 61% passer, has only connected at a 45% rate. Yet rarely does a team look like a finished product through two games. And it's better to tackle those problems with a 2-0 record, a #11 national ranking, and plenty of reasons to believe that better days lie ahead. We have reached the point where a 2-0 start, including a road win over a bitter rival, is grounds for dissatisfaction. I'd say that's a good thing.

    September 9, 2011

    Georgia and South Carolina have opened SEC play together in 16 of the last 19 seasons. The participants may have rope-a-doped the question this week, but seldom have the stakes felt as high in this series. For South Carolina, a win would be a first step toward its goal of winning the SEC Championship - and burnishing its image as a national-title contender. For Georgia, a win would cool a week's worth of talk about "F-Richt-ion" within the program. When Georgia started 0-1 in 2009, the Bulldogs rallied for a 41-37 victory over Carolina in 2009. All signs point to a sweltering, storyline-laden Saturday in Athens.

    Your final pre-snap reads from the broadcast before "Hedge Warfare" begins in Georgia:

    Help Please? Marcus Lattimore cracked a smile and predicted that "a mad defense" would await him in Athens. Lattimore's coming-out party came against Georgia last year, when the freshman shredded the Silver Britches for 182 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The Bulldogs now believe they have the true, run-stuffing nose guards -- including Kwame Geathers, the younger brother of Clifton -- that will allow their 3-4 defense to handle the zone-read dive play that Lattimore ran so effectively last year. If the Bulldogs don't get good penetration, though, they could get trucked on the second level. Injuries have racked the Bulldogs' linebacking corps, the latest casualty coming to starting inside linebacker Alec Ogletree.

    If Georgia stacks the box against Lattimore, it could also open the door for long passes downfield - something South Carolina lacked against ECU. In particular, Alshon Jeffery will have a 5-inch height advantage on Georgia's cornerback tandem of Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith. Georgia could counter by moving 6'2" safety Sanders Commings back to the cornerback spot he played last year.

    Remember me? Marcus Lattimore torched the Bulldogs for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns last year.

    Did You Know I: South Carolina achieved the rare feat of scoring an offensive touchdown (5 rushing, 1 receiving), a defensive touchdown (Antonio Allen's fumble return), and a special teams touchdown (Ace Sanders' punt return) against East Carolina. The last time the Gamecocks scored a TD in all three phases in a game was their record-breaking, 77-0 blowout of Kent State in 1995.

    Help Up Front: If offensive line is a carefully choreographed production, then the Bulldogs should've stayed behind the curtain Saturday. Georgia allowed 6 sacks against Boise State, the third-highest total on opening weekend in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Georgia's run support was hardly better: save for an 80-yard reverse by Boykin, Bulldogs running backs managed 1.9 yards per carry. Boise State used stunting and late movement to disrupt Georgia's blocking schemes, and make mirages out of running lanes. Will the Bulldogs, who will also be without starting left guard Kenarious Gates due to an ankle injury, have enough depth to win a line battle against Carolina?

    Man to Stop: Georgia tight end Orson Charles. When A.J. Green forewent his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, the casting call went out immediately for a #1 wide receiver. The Bulldogs may have found one - except he doesn't play wide receiver. Charles, a junior from Tampa, Fla., provided one of the few bright spots against Boise State, catching a career-high 109 yards on 6 receptions. At 6'3," 241 pounds, Charles' quickness and route running make him a wide receiver camouflaged as a tight end. Which Gamecock - Antonio Allen at "Spur", Melvin Ingram, or even Jadeveon Clowney - can pass-defend Charles and force Murray to look elsewhere?

    Georgia's Orson Charles, a high school teammate of Aaron Murray, had a career-high 109 receiving yards against Boise State.

    More on Melvin: The stories continue to spread about Melvin Ingram's Paul Bunyan-like athleticism. On "Carolina Calls," Steve Spurrier mentioned that Ingram not only throws a football 70 yards, but he punts left-footed. How many people throw as a righty and kick as a lefty? It seems fitting that a man of unconventional skill would wear an unconventional number for his position. However, I learned this week that Ingram's choice of #6 is not as unique as originally thought. Georgia nose guard John Jenkins also wears number 6, though it didn't begin that way for the JuCo All-American. At the beginning of pre-season camp, Georgia equipment managers didn't have a #6 practice jersey that could fit his 6'4," 351-pound frame over shoulder pads. Jenkins wore #66 until the proper size arrived.

    Special Forces: Due to a medley of turnovers, runbacks, shanks, and penalties, the field-position battle took some wild swings against East Carolina. The Gamecocks can ill afford to lose that phase against the Bulldogs. The memory of Brandon Boykin vaporizing Sanford Stadium with a 100-yard kickoff return in 2009 still haunts Gamecock fans. Punter Drew Butler averaged 46 yards per punt against Boise State, and kicker Blair Walsh is on pace to break the SEC career record for points. By contrast, when he lines up for his next field goal, Gamecocks placekicker Jay Wooten will be making his first attempt in a game since September 20, 2008.

    Georgia relied on "explosion plays" to score its points against Boise State. With only 2 3rd-down conversions in 13 tries, the Bulldogs didn't show a consistent ability to move the ball downfield. Carolina must force Georgia to take the long way on scoring opportunities.

    Jay Wooten may attempt his first field goal as a Gamecock Saturday.

    Did You Know II: New Bulldogs inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti was a member of Steve Spurrier's staff with the Washington Redskins. Olivadotti spent 11 seasons in Washington, serving under 6 different head coaches. Olivadotti told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he kept his job on Spurrier's staff "probably... because I kind of knew how to work everything in the building."

    At his Tuesday press conference, Spurrier wondered how his team would react in a close game late. Georgia must be asking itself the same question. In 2010, the Bulldogs scored their fewest fourth-quarter points in the Mark Richt era while also allowing their most points. Georgia lost 4 games last season by seven points or fewer, and was within a touchdown in the fourth quarter in its other three losses (including South Carolina). If the game gets tight in the fourth quarter, which team will show the composure needed to win? Will a desperate Georgia crowd will the Bulldogs to victory, or will Carolina show the experience that has made them SEC favorites?

    Did You Know III: Georgia's Ty Frix long-snaps to Georgia punter Drew Butler. Frix's Dad, Mitch, long-snapped to Butler's Dad, Kevin, for Georgia in 1981 and '82.

    Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our pre-game coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you in Athens.

    September 7, 2011

    Stephen Garcia won his head-to-head matchup against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray last year.

    So why does Saturday's game count as a grudge match for Garcia?

    At Jefferson HS in Tampa, Fla., Garcia set the Hillsborough County record for career touchdown passes with 83. His record was broken two years later by Murray, a standout for Tampa Plant HS. Adding to the indignity, Murray broke Garcia's record with two minutes remaining in the state championship game - his final game as a high schooler - on a throw to current Bulldogs teammate Orson Charles.

    Saturday's "Tampa Two" - Aaron Murray (left) and Stephen Garcia (right) as Tampa-area high school stars.

    More stats, insights, and anecdotes as we prepare for our broadcast in Athens:

    Distant Chains: Of all the offseason hand-wringing following Georgia's 6-7 season in 2010, most of it centered around the lack of playmakers for Murray. From A.J. Green's entry into the NFL Draft, to Kris Durham's graduation, to Washaun Ealey's transfer, the Bulldogs didn't return the certified, notarized, and confirmed yard-chewers that have dotted their roster in years past. Georgia's lack of playmakers became frustratingly evident in its Chick Fil-A Classic Game against Boise State. Georgia faced 13 third downs against Boise State, and averaged a distance of 8.9 yards to go. In the 2nd half, that number spiked to an average of 3rd down and 11.3 yards to go.

    Georgia 3rd-down distances vs. Boise State: 15, 8, 8, 7, 2, 5, 3, 12, 7, 16, 5, 10, 18

    116 total yards / 13 3rd downs = 3rd down and 8.9 yards

    It's no surprise the Bulldogs finished 2 for 13 on 3rd-down conversions against the Broncos. At his weekly press conference, Georgia head coach Mark Richt predicted -- if not urged -- that Saturday's game will be won in the trenches. Of all the areas where the Bulldogs seek improvement, this might rank near the top.

    Red-Faced: An area of improvement for South Carolina? Try red zone defense. The Gamecocks ranked 7th in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) last year in red zone defense, holding opponents to a 70% conversion rate inside the 20. The Pirates laid waste to that strength, scoring a touchdown on five of six red-zone trips Saturday night. In 2010, the Gamecocks didn't allow 5 red zone touchdowns until the fifth game of the season against #1 Alabama.

    Red Zone Touchdown Defense
    Year5th Red Zone Touchdown AllowedQuarters of play
    2011ECU, 2:42 4th quarter4
    2010Alabama, 0:38 2nd quarter18

    Like Father, Unlike Son: Battle lines and border lines will intersect Saturday for Bulldogs linebacker Christian Robinson. The 6'2" redshirt junior from Norcross, Ga., is the son of former Gamecock linebacker Ken Robinson, who still ranks 7th in school history in career tackles. A broken arm forced Robinson to redshirt during the Gamecocks' "Black Magic" season of 1984. The younger Robinson, who accompanied his Dad for the 25th reunion of the Black Magic team at Williams-Brice Stadium two years ago, was offered by South Carolina and Georgia on the same day.

    And Finally..... His front license plate says "SuperMelvin," complete with the Superman logo. Reality is only slightly less exaggerated for redshirt senior defensive lineman Melvin Ingram, who intercepted a pass versus East Carolina while adding 2 tackles and a QBH. Talk to Ingram's teammates, and they'll regale you with stories of his Paul Bunyan-esque athleticism (how many 276-pound defensive linemen were once listed on the depth chart at punt returner?).

    Ingram has made both a name -- and a number -- for himself at South Carolina. Despite ribbing from his patently old-school defensive line coach, Brad Lawing, Ingram has clung to the oddball #6 during his Gamecock career. Melvin told me he has worn that number since his days at Richmond County HS in Hamlet, N.C., and for a specific reason:

    "Six-Shooter": normally the province of quarterbacks, wide receivers, and specialists, senior Melvin Ingram (#6) has made a name - and number - for himself.

    "Originally, I wore #9 because I played so many different positions. Then my teammates started calling me `Quick-Six' because I was scoring so many touchdowns on offense and defense. So I flipped it around to #6," Ingram said.

    He wore it well against East Carolina. Will "SuperMelvin" find his phone booth in Athens as well?

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before the bus rolls out to Georgia.

    September 4, 2011

    The number seems too low, too ludicrous, to be true. But sure enough, tucked unassumingly on page 108 of the South Carolina media guide, there sits a remarkable record that the Gamecocks could tie Saturday. If the Gamecocks beat Georgia in Athens, they'll tie the school record for longest winning streak in true road games - 4, set in 1929. What's more surprising: that the record is 4 games, or that it was set 82 years ago? The 1929 squad, coached by Billy Laval, beat Maryland, The Citadel, Furman, and N.C. State consecutively. Seems long overdue to be tied, don't you think?

    More notes, quotes, and anecdotes as we look back at a turnover-addled week - both good and bad - for Carolina football:

    Allen Wrench: Despite a unit that finished 46th in the nation in total defense, no South Carolina player had a double-digit tackle game last year. Antonio Allen swiftly put an end to that. The senior from Ocala, Fla., doubled his career high in tackles against East Carolina (16), while also forcing a pair of fumbles. Asked in the locker room how he felt physically after his 16-tackle performance, Allen told us, "I feel every one of them." Antonio also told us another interesting tidbit on our pre-game show: the first NFL jersey he owned as a kid was of former Gamecock Sterling Sharpe.

    Antonio Allen finished with a career-high 16 tackles.

    Comeback `Cocks? South Carolina hadn't come back from a 17-point deficit to win a game since at least 1992.

    All in the Family: Connor Shaw's first career start may not have gone according to plan, but it didn't diminish a thrilling night for the Shaw family. At 7 p.m., while Connor started for the Gamecocks, older brother Jaybo started at quarterback for Georgia Southern in its season opener against Samford. The boys were coached by their Dad, Lee Shaw, at Flowery Branch HS in Flowery Branch, Ga. In fact, Jaybo threw his first career touchdown pass to Connor, who was a freshman wide receiver (don't dismiss Shaw as a decoy in the Wildcat formation).

    Aces Wild: After his 68-yard punt return for a touchdown, sophomore Ace Sanders briefly became a trending topic on Twitter, taking his place alongside "Madea Goes To Jail" (movie), "George Kottaras" (Milwaukee Brewers catcher who hit for the cycle), and "CODE PURPLE" (don't want to know). Sanders' 68-yard return was more than South Carolina's total punt return yardage from last season (65).

    South Carolina Punt Return Yards 2010
    PlayerPunt Returns-Yards
    Ace Sanders19-46
    Stephon Gilmore9-46

    With one return, Ace Sanders surpassed South Carolina's entire punt return yardage from 2010.

    Letdown: The mood at Bank of America Stadium was somber as Carolina trudged to the locker room trailing 24-14 at halftime. However, as we noted on the broadcast, East Carolina allowed a staggering 24.3 points per game in the 2nd half last season. South Carolina hung 42 points in the 2nd half.

    "INSIDE THE CHART" EXCLUSIVE: South Carolina now prepares for a wounded Georgia team that looked listless in a 35-21 loss to Boise State at the Chick Fil-A Kickoff Classic. It's no overstatement that Saturday's game could make or break the Bulldogs' season. South Carolina should expect a stiff test by that measure alone. But another reason suggests an impending dogfight in Athens: since 2000, the South Carolina-Georgia series has had the smallest average margin of victory of any SEC series. Keep your heart medicine nearby.

    Smallest Margin of Victory (since 2000)
    SeriesMargin of Victory
    South Carolina-Georgia8.7
    South Carolina-Tennessee9.0
    Ole Miss-Vanderbilt9.5

    The Bulldogs have also shown resilience when facing South Carolina after a loss. The Bulldogs have not started a season 0-2 since 1993.

    Check back Wednesday for more "Inside The Chart" insights from the Gamecock IMG Sports Network.

    September 2, 2011

    It seems fitting that one Pirate would steal from another pirate. East Carolina's Ruffin McNeill vowed that if he ever became a head coach, we would install the same high-powered offense concocted by his former boss, Texas Tech coach (and noted pirate fetishist) Mike Leach. Alongside offensive coordinator (and former Texas Tech receivers coach) Lincoln Riley, McNeill's Pirates shattered 29 individual or team records in his debut season in 2010.

    All players must re-adjust to "game speed" in a season opener. But facing an opponent whose "game speed" is already a blur? That's why East Carolina's style - its ability to frazzle and fatigue opponents, and its potential for video game-like numbers - has given Gamecock fans heartburn leading up to Saturday's showdown at Bank of America Stadium. Season openers are unpredictable enough. Throw in a dizzying, niche offense to defend, and suddenly rankings and pre-season awards don't mean much.

    Perhaps a history lesson - and some fascinating numbers - can allay those fears. Last year, South Carolina opened with Southern Miss, another Conference USA opponent known for a blazing spread offense and occasionally leaky defense. In fact, ECU and Southern Miss look like mirror images when comparing their numbers from the previous season:

    NCAA FBS Rankings (out of 120)
    CategoryEast Carolina '10Southern Miss '09
    Scoring Offense16th (36.7)18th (32.9)
    3rd Down %43rd (43.09)42nd (41.95)
    Sacks Allowed/Game20th (1.15)21st (1.23)
    Pass Defense107th (252 ypg)109th (261 ypg)
    Yds. Penalized/Game111th (67.6 ypg)113th (70.3)
    Punt Returns30th (10.8)31st (11.5)

    South Carolina dominated Southern Miss 41-13, frustrating the Golden Eagles with changing defenses and great close-out speed on the flanks. For all the talk of Southern Miss' offensive pyrotechnics, the Golden Eagles left Williams-Brice Stadium with a whimper. With the Gamecocks produce a similar frustration in ECU -- and a similar result on the scoreboard?

    Wrap It Up: East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis led the nation, averaging 30.23 completions per game in 2010. True to its Mike Leach heritage, ECU loves to send Davis on three-step drops, throw horizontally, and create mismatches on the edges. For instance, ECU may flood three receivers to one side, then dump off to a receiver on the other side who's isolated against a linebacker. The Pirates offense is predicated on getting rid of the ball as quickly as possible, and putting it in the hands of its playmakers. Said Terry Cousin to me Monday: "We'll see who makes the best tackles."

    East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis led the NCAA FBS in completions/game in 2010 (30.23).

    Pass-Run Ratio: According to this excellent article from the "Football Study Hall" website, East Carolina had the second-highest adjusted pass-run ratio in the nation last year. "Adjusted run-pass ratio" eliminates all downs that are obvious passing or running situations, and only accounts for plays that could statistically go either way. Under those circumstances, East Carolina passed 65.6% of the time in 2010. Only Hawaii (71.2%) attempted passes on more downs than the Pirates. That could put a strain on Carolina's secondary, which will be without DeVonte Holloman (suspension) and Akeem Auguste (injury).

    NCAA Rankings '10TeamAdjusted Pass %
    2.East Carolina65.6

    Did You Know? Dominique Davis began his career at Boston College as an heir apparent to Matt Ryan, but transferred after one season to Fort Scott Community College in Fort Scott, Kan. Among his teammates at Fort Scott, where he led the Greyhounds to the semifinals of the JuCo national playoffs, was Gamecocks defensive tackle Byron Jerideau.

    Stat Showdown of the Week - Seeing Red: East Carolina ranked 5th in the nation last year in Red Zone Offense, converting on 90.0% of its trips (TD's or FG's). South Carolina ranked 7th in the nation in Red Zone Defense, allowing only 70.0% conversions. ECU's Red Zone scoring percentage tied them with Arkansas, which scored touchdowns on 5 of 6 red zone trips again the Gamecocks last year.

    By the way: South Carolina was the last team in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision to allow a red-zone touchdown last year.

    South Carolina's stingy red zone defense will be put to the test against East Carolina.

    Record Watch: Alshon Jeffery will stride onto the Bank of America Stadium turf with a Brinks Truck full of pre-season accolades. A member of the Biletnikoff, Walter Camp, and Maxwell Award Watch Lists, Jeffery will also try to crack an ECU secondary that, as noted Wednesday, finished dead-last in the nation in total offense last year (478.8 ypg). Jeffery will have a good chance to break the school record for most receiving yards in a season opener, set by Ira Hillary in 1984 (146 yards vs. The Citadel). Oddly enough, that was Hillary's only 100-yard receiving game as a Gamecock.

    And Finally... Gamecock defensive tackle Melvin Ingram played at Richmond County High School in Rockingham, N.C., for former East Carolina head coach (and Lancaster, S.C., native) Ed Emory (1980-84). Emory was the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech in 1979 when then-head coach Pepper Rodgers hired a young QB's coach in only his second year in the business: Steve Spurrier.

    Our game-day coverage begins at 4 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. If you plan on watching the game from Bank of America Stadium, you can listen to Todd and Tommy on our affiliate station WRHM 107.1 FM in Rock Hill. As Coach Spurrier would say, "talking season" is over. Let's put toe to leather.

    August 31, 2011

    He played a little bit of everything as a football standout at South Johnston HS in Four Oaks, N.C. On offense, he led the Trojans as a slotback. On defense, he provided a sturdy presence at defensive back. Where he excelled most, though, may have been at placekicker. With a style that was straightforward, short on subtlety, and undeniably effective, he once kicked a 45-yard field goal in a game, and drew recruiting interest from South Carolina's upcoming opponent, East Carolina. He ultimately spurned the Pirates, opting to play college baseball some 35 miles from his hometown.

    Who was this gridiron legend with the golden foot?

    You guessed it.

    "That was a chip shot for me," Ray Tanner quipped.

    Yes, the same man who led South Carolina to back-to-back College World Series titles fancied himself a cannon-legged kicker in high school.

    "You ever heard of George Blanda or Tom Dempsey? That was me," Tanner said, invoking the names of some of the NFL's legendary toe-poke kickers.

    Tanner still recalls with Al Bundy-like clarity the night that his 45-yarder somersaulted through the uprights: South Johnston versus the Clayton Comets, Fall of 1975. "I scored two touchdowns, kicked both extra points, and made that field goal. I scored all 17 of our points," Tanner said. (No word on whether he cleaned the bleachers and helped a stranded motorist on the way home.)

    East Carolina, led by future Auburn head coach Pat Dye, showed interest in Tanner as a placekicker and member of its baseball team ("I wouldn't say I was a hot prospect," Tanner admits). He instead headed to N.C. State, where he embarked on a baseball career under head coach Sam Esposito.

    That's one missed attempt that Gamecock fans don't regret.

    First Things First: Once the smoke cleared and the last strains of 2001 subsided, South Carolina struggled to maintain the energy of its introduction on offense. In 2009, the Gamecocks scored touchdowns on 8 of 44 1st-quarter possessions, with nearly as many turnovers (7).

    That changed dramatically in 2010. With the playmaking skills of Garcia, Jeffery, and Lattimore, South Carolina managed to find its rhythm earlier. Compare the Gamecocks' touchdown rate in the 1st quarter over the last two seasons:

    Season1st-Quarter Touchdowns1st-Quarter Total Possessions%

    East Carolina mastered the art of the shootout last season (more on that later). A quick start may be a necessity, rather than a luxury, against the Pirates. Fortunately, the trend seems to point in the Gamecocks' favor.

    Stat of the Week: East Carolina's Ruffin McNeill made his bones as a defensive maven, rising from linebackers coach at Austin Peay and North Alabama to defensive coordinator at Appalachian State and Texas Tech before returning to his alma mater. Surely, nothing churned McNeill's stomach more than watching his Pirates repeatedly melt down on defense. ECU ranked last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense (478.8 ypg allowed), and finished second-worst in third-down defense (51.35%).

    No statistic captures ECU's struggles better than this: the Pirates allowed 20 or more points in a quarter 8 times last season. The Gamecocks have allowed 20 or more points in a quarter 8 times in the last 8 seasons combined.

    20+ Pts. Allowed in a QuarterECU 2010USC, 2003-2010

    Adding to the dread, ECU only returns 5 defensive starters. Come to think of it, that may not be a bad thing.

    Lucky Number 9? Statistics are like hostages: torture them long enough, and they'll tell you whatever you want.

    In that case, interpret these numbers however you choose. In 21 seasons as a college head coach, Steve Spurrier's teams have finished with 9 wins a total of 4 times. Look at how his previous teams fared the following year:

    SeasonTeam (Record)Next year's recordPostseason
    1990Florida (9-2, 6-1 SEC)10-2, 7-0 SECSugar Bowl
    1992Florida (9-4, 6-3 SEC)11-2, 8-1 SECSugar Bowl
    1999Florida (9-4, 7-2 SEC)10-3, 8-1 SECSugar Bowl
    2010South Carolina (9-5, 5-3 SEC)????????

    In the ensuing season, all three of Spurrier's teams had double-digit wins; won the SEC regular-season title; and reached a BCS-level bowl. The Gamecocks haven't done any of those things in its 118-year football history.

    Sugar High? Steve Spurrier hopes to continue a trend of his 9-win teams finishing even better the following season.

    Thousand-Yard Itch: The Gamecocks are one of three teams in SEC history to return a 1,000-yard receiver (Jeffery) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Lattimore). The first team? Tennessee in 1996, which welcomed back current Gamecocks running backs coach Jay Graham. The Vols - led by some quarterback named Manning - finished 9-2.

    And Finally... You may see some people report that South Carolina last played a neutral-site season opener in 1901. The fledgling Gamecocks fell to the University of Georgia 10-5 in Augusta (by comparison, "East Carolina Teachers Training School" wasn't chartered until 6 years later). South Carolina's last neutral-site season opener was actually in 1939, when the Gamecocks lost 19-7 to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem.

    If the game was in Winston-Salem, why did it count as a neutral site? Wake Forest University was still located in Wake Forest, N.C. It didn't migrate its campus to Winston-Salem until 1956.

    Check back Friday for our final pre-snap reads before the Gamecocks and Pirates break open the season. Oh, and one last thing...

    The picture of determination, folks.

    August 29, 2011

    Is the most anticipated season in South Carolina history upon us?

    Judge for yourself. For the first time, the Gamecocks begin play as SEC East champions. A pre-season AP ranking of 12th marks the highest in school history. On Sunday, the New York Post made the maverick move of picking South Carolina as its eventual national champion. In wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks have their first football player to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.

    Alshon Jeffery on the cover of Sports Illustrated's college football preview.

    All around, familiar faces peer through facemasks (13 returning starters). Playmakers prowl on both sides of the ball (South Carolina returns its leading rusher, receiver, passer, tackler, and interceptor from 2010). Freshmen appear poised to make an impact, not from lack of depth, but from irrepressible talent.

    For the first time in awhile, the answers seem to outnumber the questions coming out of pre-season camp. Only one question, though, cannot be answered: how will the Gamecocks handle it? Will the high expectations burden them, or motivate them to reach higher?

    We'll find out Saturday, when the Gamecocks open the 2011 football season against East Carolina. In the meantime, welcome to another season of "Inside the Chart," the Gamecock Radio Network's official blog on Each year, we collect an incredible reservoir of stories from broadcasting the Gamecocks. We search exhaustively for tidbits on players, or twist and pull statistics until our eyes bleed, all so we can spin a more compelling narrative of the game.

    Not all of that information, though, can squeeze into a broadcast. Storylines change. A statistic never becomes relevant. There's no elegant way to weave in a particular anecdote. Only about 10 percent of the information we gather, tops, ever sees the light of air. That's why we've created this space: to give you a running look each week at our preparation for game broadcasts. We hope you'll find our anecdotes, statistics, and stories worthwhile, amusing - and maybe even mildly interesting. At the very least, we hope you'll get a broadcaster's-eye view of each South Carolina game.

    So in true radio fashion, "Stand by... mics up." Let's dive "Inside The Chart" for 2011-12....

    A Familiar Face

    In the itinerant world of college football, coaching careers can weave intricate patterns. With résumés reading as long as Costco receipts, it's not unusual to find connections, reunions, and other crossed paths on rival coaching staffs. Opposing assistants may have worked together at the same school. Coaches may have toiled together as graduate assistants. Read enough bios, and you'll inevitably find dots to connect.

    When South Carolina plays East Carolina Saturday, offensive line coach Shawn Elliott will have a paths-crossed story of his own. Though his coaching days are spent on the offensive line, Elliott's playing days were spent on the defensive line at Appalachian State from '92-95. Elliott's defensive coordinator was none other than current East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill.

    Elliott still cracks a smile at the burly, bullhorn-voiced coach who shepherded him from Camden High School to the Mountaineers.

    "I can remember sitting at the table eating dinner with him the Saturday evening that we were up [in Boone, N.C.] on my visit. He was involved in about everything," Elliott said in his office last week.

    Even 16 years later, McNeill's presence at App State remains vivid. Though energetic, Elliott says McNeill wasn't above living up to his onomatopoeic first name.

    "He's a guy that makes everything you do a little more fun. He's a hard guy. He's going to press you. He'll make you feel good about the things you're doing well and of course make you feel bad about the things you're not doing so well," Elliott said.

    Blast from the past: South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott (left) and ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill (right) at Appalachian State. Even back then, Elliott's stare could crush concrete into a fine powder. Photo courtesy: Mike Flynn, Appalachian State Media Relations

    The ECU coach, in turn, found a player who responded to his teachings. "Shawn came in ready to go as a freshman. He was a leader from second one," McNeill said recently. "He could take butt chewings pretty well. He took having expectations placed upon him really well. If you've got players and they all follow what Shawn did for us as a player, you've got a great football team."

    Great football teams were a fixture of McNeill and Elliott's time together. With McNeill guiding the defense, and Elliott as his co-captain, Appalachian State won the Southern Conference title in 1995. Elliott was the first player in Appalachian State history to appear in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs four separate seasons. In 1995, he earned All-Southern Conference honors at defensive end. In four years together, McNeill and Elliott held a won-loss record of 36-14.

    "If you ever saw me in person or seen me play [at Appalachian State], we weren't the most talented group," Elliott recalls. "[McNeill] taught us how to run to the football, play as a unit, and play with a lot of great intensity, and heart, and effort. He instilled that into me to this day. That's one of things that really set us apart from most defenses. Boy, we were flying around."

    Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Shawn Elliott will try to outfox his former coach Saturday.

    Their paths diverged shortly after Elliott's graduation. While Elliott stayed at App State as a graduate assistant, McNeill parlayed his success in Boone into his first I-A defensive coordinator job at UNLV.

    Now a decorated coach himself, Elliott notices some of McNeill's qualities have rubbed off on him.

    "Even though he was a hard coach and would push you to the limit, he also made the game enjoyable. It wasn't one of those scared, tense moments every time you sat in his office. We were all relaxed, and we enjoyed being around each other. I kind of take a little bit of that away from him," Elliott said.

    As for his favorite "Ruffin-isms"?

    "Some of the quotes I can't put on air, I can surely tell you that," Elliott said, his lantern jaw softening into a smile. "But I can see him right now sitting in that locker room [September 3], telling those guys exactly what he used to tell us, and that was to win the football game.

    "No matter what how you did it, what you had to do, what you had to create, you go get it done and win the game."


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