COLUMBIA — South Carolina surrendered an early touchdown before cruising to a surprisingly easy 52-7 road victory over Arkansas at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville on Saturday afternoon. Here are five things we learned:
1. USC is capable of playing impeccably on the road: In the previous three SEC road games, USC had given up a fourth quarter lead at LSU (23-21 loss), regularly fumbled the ball away at Florida (44-11 loss) and yielded 536 offensive yards at Georgia (41-30 loss). In other words, they had fallen far short of stringing together four quality quarters of football and won convincingly. When is the last time that happened? Perhaps the SEC East-clinching win at Florida in 2010.
Except for Arkansas’s opening touchdown drive, it’s hard to find fault with anything the Gamecocks did on Saturday. They executed immaculately on both sides of the ball and dominated a SEC rival in front its home fans on Homecoming. The difference in total yards (289), passing yards (230), first downs (25), offensive plays (52) and time of possession (26:50) was extraordinary and harked back to USC’s dominating 54-3 win over Kentucky in 2011.
2. Connor Shaw deserves more national attention: Unfortunately, the national media’s unnerving obsession with USC defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has resulted in other Gamecock players going virtually unnoticed in USC’s 5-1 start. One of them is quarterback Connor Shaw, who was 19-of-28 passing for 219 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s win, and has now thrown 166 consecutive passes without an interception. His touchdown pass-to-interception ration this season is a remarkable 10-to-0 and he is currently third in passing efficiency in the SEC with a rating of 172.8. For the season, he has completed 68.5 percent of his passes (85-of-124) for 1,146 yards. This is what an appreciative Spurrier had to say Sunday about Shaw:
“We are where we are (5-1 record; 27-5 record in last three seasons) because he’s played well. . .He’s a little bit better passer than maybe he was in his first and second year. He was really hurt towards the end of last year with the foot. Now it feels good. And he’s getting down better when he runs to protect himself. He’s done an excellent job getting all he can and getting down to avoid the big hits. . .He certainly should (get more attention). The biggest thing he’s down is 22-4 as a starter.”
Since Shaw joined the USC program in 2010, the Gamecocks are 36-10. Looking back, how important were the additions of Marcus Lattimore and Shaw to the Gamecocks that year? Program-changing, for sure.
3. Shamier Jeffery had his coming out party: The moment eagerly awaited by many Gamecock fans finally happened on Saturday. Redshirt sophomore Shamier Jeffery, younger brother of Alshon, caught the first five passes of his career for 32 yards, earning him the distinction of being USC’s second-leading receiver on the afternoon. Only Bruce Ellington (6) had more receptions than Jeffery. Was the encouraging performance the emotional lift Jeffery needed to finally become a major contributor to USC’s passing offense?
His newfound presence, along with the expected return of Shaq Roland for Saturday afternoon’s game at Tennessee and the emergence of Damiere Byrd as a legitimate deep threat, expands USC’s options in the passing game. Wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. has talked admirably about Jeffery’s strong work ethic in recent weeks and theorized that all he needed was a performance in a game like Saturday’s to jumpstart his career. Even Spurrier appeared a little surprised at Jeffery’s coming out party, replying simply, “Shamier Jeffery made some plays. He came to play and did some good stuff in there,” when asked afterwards.
4. Adhering to a popular John Wooden coaching philosophy paid dividends for USC: John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, had a well-known coaching philosophy that the bench was your friend. In other words, if a player wasn’t performing up to expectations or doing what he was asked to do or not fulfilling his assignment, the best thing a coach could do was put him on the bench and give somebody else a chance. Spurrier has adhered to that philosophy throughout his coaching career, and we saw the latest example on Saturday.
Spurrier spoke about making changes on defense for weeks following the fourth quarter struggles against Vanderbilt, UCF and Kentucky. Yet, little was done by the USC defensive coaches. But Saturday, we saw the first fruits of Spurrier’s urging. Redshirt freshmen Chaz Elder and Rico McWilliams started at free safety and cornerback, respectively, in place of Brison Williams and Victor Hampton. The brief benching seemed to spark Hampton, who intercepted a pass during his first series on the field and said afterwards will try to gain back the confidence of the coaches and earn his starting job back.
5. USC doesn’t require Jadeveon Clowney piling up a bunch of stats to win big: Hidden deep underground with the national media’s fixation on Clowney is the reality football is a team sport. I’m sure if you told some people around the country that USC won, 52-7, even though Clowney had just one tackle, they’d act stunned. For perhaps the first time all season, USC played solid TEAM defense. As expected, Arkansas ran most of their plays away from Clowney, essentially cutting the field in half and challenging the other 10 players on defense to step up and make plays. Saturday, they did. Look at the stats - freshman linebacker Skai Moore led USC with six stops.
A quartet of players had four tackles, while six had two each. The message? A lot of players contributed to the effort and helped shut down the Arkansas offense over the final 50-plus minutes of the game. Contrary to what the national would have us believe, success on defense is not predicated upon one superstar player making all the tackles. Nobody understands that better than Clowney, who was as happy as any Gamecock player afterwards. First and foremost, Clowney wants to win now, not when he gets to the NFL next summer.