South Carolina Football: Grading the Offense and Defense from the Georgia Game
In a season-defining game for South Carolina, the sixth-ranked Gamecocks stunned fifth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs with 21 first-quarter points en route to a 35-7 victory in Columbia.
With two key SEC road games coming up, South Carolina doesn't have much time to savor the victory. The Gamecocks travel to Baton Rouge to play a rebounding LSU team next week, then take on a surging Florida team in The Swamp.
But there was certainly plenty to celebrate at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night.
Here's the Gamecocks' report card.
Connor Shaw: B+
Efficiency and ability to create with his legs earn high marks for Connor Shaw in a game that was not exactly a highlight reel for his passing ability.
While only attempting 10 passes, Shaw's six completions were timely, especially his two early touchdown strikes to Bruce Ellington and Rory Anderson; not to mention his 62-yard bomb to D.L. Moore in the third quarter.
When the Gamecock receivers were covered, Shaw was more than capable as a runner, finishing with 62 yards on 11 carries.
An over-reliance on his running ability, though, at times seemed to leave the Gamecocks holding their breath after he took some vicious hits. They were the kind of plays that could re-injure the shoulder he hurt in Week 1 against Vanderbilt, or do something worse.
Shaw's receivers also bailed him out on a couple of underthrown balls that could have resulted in interceptions.
The bottom line, though, was that Shaw had no turnovers and no crucial mistakes. It was a gamer's effort from the junior quarterback.
Marcus Lattimore: A
After rushing for 182 yards against Georgia in 2012 and 176 last year in Athens, it seemed nearly impossible for Marcus Lattimore to produce a similar effort on Saturday night, and he did not.
But he still managed to ring up 109 yards on 24 carries and run for a third-quarter touchdown.
Because of Lattimore's past success against Georgia, the Bulldogs were forced to key on No. 21, which set up some early play-action passes that jump-started the Gamecocks' offense.
Unlike earlier this season when Lattimore was kept under wraps until the second half, he was involved early against the Bulldogs and the results showed.
Without a doubt, he remains the Gamecocks' most valuable player on offense.
Offense Line: A+
The Gamecocks' offensive line struggled in the first half last week against Kentucky as the Wildcats held South Carolina to seven points. But in the second half, the offensive line blew Kentucky off the ball, setting the stage for a furious comeback, led by a dominant running attack.
Saturday against the Bulldogs, there was no first-half lull from Corey Robinson, A.J. Cann, T.J. Johnson, Ronald Patrick and Brandon Shell. Instead, the offensive line allowed the Gamecocks to run the ball early and often, and gave Connor Shaw enough time to deliver the ball downfield or scramble for daylight.
The result was 230 rushing yards and an average of 4.5 yards per carry, not to mention a quiet night for Jarvis Jones, Georgia's star outside linebacker.
The Gamecocks' front five is starting to build its chemistry at the right time of the year.
Damiere Byrd: B+
With Connor Shaw only completing 6 of 10 passes, there weren't huge numbers from the Gamecock receivers Saturday, but their catches were critical benchmarks that ultimately tilted the game in South Carolina's favor.
Take Damiere Byrd's 42-yard catch on the Gamecocks' first drive that could have easily been an interception by Bacarri Rambo.
Byrd's aggressiveness allowed him to wrestle the ball away from Rambo and turned what could have been an early turnover into South Carolina's first score of the game.
Bruce Ellington: B+
Bruce Ellington made his one catch count, snagging a 20-yard Connor Shaw rope for a touchdown during the Gamecocks' first-quarter onslaught.
Ellington still continues to be quite the utility player for the Gamecocks in both kick returns and as a receiver. He also sets a pretty mean screen on the football field as well as the basketball court.
Again, his contribution might have been in the early stages of the game, but it was definitely significant.
D.L. Moore: B+
For D.L. Moore, his 62-yard catch in the third quarter was a redeeming moment for the senior wide receiver after a talked-about drop against Kentucky a week ago.
Like Shaw's performance, his was nothing flashy numbers-wise, but it was critical to the Gamecocks' victory and seemed to be the death knell for the Bulldogs in the second half.
Ace Sanders: A
He might not have made as much of an impact as a receiver as he had over the last couple of weeks, but Ace Sanders certainly made his presence felt in a big way Saturday night, returning a first-quarter punt 70 yards for a touchdown to extend South Carolina's lead to 21-0.
That might have been Sanders' only standout moment of the Georgia game, but it became another addition to the Motörhead highlight video that figures to be must-see viewing by the end of the season.
Sanders' return skills are another weapon SEC teams have to prepare for when playing the Gamecocks and could be a game-changer at LSU and Florida.
Jadeveon Clowney: A+
South Carolina's incarnation of The Predator feasted on Aaron Murray and recorded another sack to add to the 5.5 he already had.
When he wasn't directly involved in hitting the ball-carrier, Jadeveon Clowney was leaping over defenders with ease and enough ferocity to jar the Bulldogs' offense and force Murray into bad throws.
The occasional double-team blocks from Georgia's backs didn't seem to stymie the sophomore sensation, but when they did, it only opened the doors for the rest of the defensive line to tee off on Murray and heavily hyped freshman backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who were held to 76 rushing yards combined.
Now if only he would do The Predator laugh whenever he sacks a quarterback.
Devin Taylor: A
When it wasn't Jadeveon Clowney creating havoc in the Georgia backfield, it was Devin Taylor breaking through when his teammate was double-teamed.
Taylor finished the game with only three tackles, but he was a huge part of the reason Georgia was held to only 224 total yards and a tacked-on touchdown in the game's final minutes.
Byron Jerideau and Kelcy Quarles: A
While South Carolina's defensive ends get most of the attention because of their size and speed, the interior of the Gamecocks' shut down Georgia's attempts to run between the tackles.
Defense tackles Byron Jerideau and Kelcy Quarles combined for six tackles against the Bulldogs and were instrumental in keeping the combination of Gurley and Marshall at bay.
Let's face it, does anyone on the Gamecocks' defense deserve less than an A? No. Granted, their individual stats may not be impressive, but as a unit, this defense lived up to its billing as one of the nation's best.
The play that quickly changed the momentum of this game was DeVonte Holloman's diving interception of a tipped Aaron Murray pass on the Bulldogs' first offensive possession.
South Carolina's swarming defensive line grabbed a lot of the headlines against Georgia, but Holloman, Reginald Bowens and Shaq Wilson combined for 10 tackles and rarely allowed Georgia backs to reach the second level of the Gamecocks' defense.
Led by quarterback Aaron Murray, the highly touted Georgia offense had been averaging 275 yards a game through the air. So even without injured star wide receiver Michael Bennett, the Gamecock secondary knew it would be tested.
And cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree (with a lot of help from Akeem Auguste) proved to be up to the challenge and were not lit up by Murray and his receivers.
Although penalized a couple of times and victims of a couple of early longer completions, the cornerbacks made the big plays when it counted, especially when the Bulldogs were deep in South Carolina territory.
The 15-play 80-yard drive in the second quarter that could have put Georgia back in the game was halted on a 4th-and-1 from the 2-yard line, thanks to excellent coverage of the Georgia receivers.
It was against UAB that free safety D.J. Swearinger delivered a vicious hit that (although debatable to Steve Spurrier) earned him a one-game suspension against Missouri.
That hit, along with his general affinity to create big hits defending the run or the pass, became part of the hype surrounding this game.
The senior safety did not create any headlines or controversy against Georgia, but he still had a modest, effective effort with four tackles.
His fellow safety, Brison Williams, found himself more frequently around the ball, recording seven tackles against Georgia.
Again, with all of the confusion and chaos the South Carolina defensive line was causing, the secondary was left to defend what for the most part were pretty poorly thrown balls. As a result, it was not tested nearly as severely by Murray and his receivers as had been expected.
When a defense only gives up 224 yards (109 through the air and 115 on the ground), there is not a lot of room for extreme criticism.
Sure, for the bitter, stat-fueled curmudgeon looking to increase page views with cheap debate, grading down the elements of the South Carolina defense not actively involved in the dismantling of Georgia on Saturday could be mistaken as genius analysis.
Let's just let the eye test grade this game.
The fact is, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward put on display what could arguably be the best defense in the country, and it remained in control and disciplined the entire game. Nitpicking the secondary for not having more interceptions and the linebackers for not creating more fumbles would be unnecessarily egregious.
With the exception of the last touchdown given up in the waning minutes, the Gamecocks played a nearly perfect and complete game.
Offensively, Steve Spurrier kept to the game plan and did not put Shaw in the position of having to try to constantly push the ball downfield to his receivers. Instead, he used Lattimore's runs to set up the pass, which accounted for South Carolina's early scores, then came back to him to control the clock and keep the Georgia defense on the field in the second half.
Overall, it was a complete, total-game effort for a team that has a tough road ahead, with two critical SEC games in two of the nation's toughest places to play.