COLUMBIA — South Carolina suffered a 52-28 loss to Texas A&M last Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium, snapping the Gamecocks’ 18-game home winning streak. Here are five things we learned:
1. The 3-4 defense still a work in progress: As they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and the initial reaction to USC’s 3-4 defense is this: Yuck. Even Steve Spurrier had a few sarcastic comments about the newfangled alignment following the game.
But defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward didn’t budge afterwards after watching his defense surrender 600-plus yards for the fifth time in school history - the 3-4 is here to stay because it fits USC’s personal and strengths and USC just had to execute better.
Obviously, it didn’t look like it in the opener, but with another fast-paced team coming to Columbia on Saturday (East Carolina), we’ll get a second look at the 3-4. If we see the same results, what happens then?
2. When his mechanics are right, Dylan Thompson is a very good downfield passer: Dylan Thompson entered last Thursday’s game with a 55 percent career completion percentage, so his 20-of-40 passing was close to what he has done in his career,, although Spurrier and quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus want a 60-65 completion rate. Four of Thompson’s completions went for touchdowns, including passes of 69 yards to Nick Jones and 46 yards to Damiere Byrd in the first half.
It was the first time a Gamecock quarterback had multiple TD passes of 40-plus yards in the opening half since the 2006 Liberty Bowl against Houston when Blake Mitchell and Kenny McKinley connected twice from long range.
Thompson’s best physical attribute is his vertical passing. So, when he is standing tall in the pocket and stepping into his throws, he is a very good passer because of his strong arm. But when he throws off his back foot and floats the football up for grabs, as he did on the interception, he is mediocre at best.
3. The SEC West will be a monster this season: Except for Arkansas, the SEC Western Division had a fabulous opening weekend with impressive victories by Texas A&M (USC), Auburn (Arkansas), LSU (Wisconsin), Ole Miss (Boise State) and Mississippi State (Southern Miss). Alabama won too but struggled past West Virginia.
If you put a lot of stock in first games (some do, some don’t), the SEC West is set up for a very competitive race. Certainly, the Aggies have the talent to be a major factor in the race now that they have a quarterback (Kenny Hill). But, as we’ve learned in the past, first looks can be deceiving. Right now, four or five teams are capable of winning the division and earning the berth in the SEC title game on Dec. 6.
4. Besides turnover margin, third-down conversion percentage is important too: Lost amid the avalanche of the big offensive numbers (680 total yards, 511 passing yards, 99 plays) is the sobering reality that USC was dreadful on third downs on both sides of the ball. Texas A&M was 12-of-17 on third downs, while USC was 2-of-9, a gap as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. The Aggies essentially played keep-a-way with a 37:38 TOP.
In addition, they were 2-of-2 on fourth down. Translation: USC had 14 opportunities to get the Texas A&M offense off the field, but failed. That’s how you get beat.
Texas A&M took full advantage of USC’s horrendous third-down defense and zipped up and down the field. Best example: The Aggies faced third-and-13 from the USC 29 early in the third quarter. They snapped off a 24-yard run for a first down at the USC 5. Three plays later, they scored a touchdown.
5. Nick Jones could lead USC in receiving this season: Nick Jones has been one of the most underrated players on the Gamecocks for his entire career. But he has made a lot of big plays. On Thursday, he caught five passes for a career-best 113 yards and two touchdowns. It was his best game since Georgia last season.
Unfortunately, Jones’ best games seem to come in losses when the poorly performing defense dominated the attention. Again, that’s typical for Jones’ career since he has been overshadowed since high school when he was a high school teammate of Marcus Lattimore. USC’s offense has focused on smaller receivers since the departure of Alshon Jeffery after the 2011 season and Jones (and Byrd) could maintain that trend this season.