Let's face it, grading the South Carolina Gamecocks over the last few weeks has been a little too easy. That can happen when you're 6-0. But now, the Gamecocks are 6-1 after coming up short against LSU in Baton Rouge, 23-21.
And thus, with a loss finally under their belt, we can examine more of the opportunities that contributed to the first loss of the season for Steve Spurrier and company.
Truth be told, it's not an "end of the world" or an "end of a season" kind of game. In actuality, it might be the best thing to happen to the Gamecocks as they can fine-tune some major and minor things in the continued battle for SEC East and SEC Championship supremacy.
Throughout the season, Connor Shaw was lauded for two major reasons—accuracy (75.7 percent) and decision making (0 interceptions).
Against LSU, Shaw was 19-of-34 passing and threw two interceptions, including a pick to end South Carolina's final drive. A tough day at the office for the Gamecock quarterback that again exposed Shaw's wayward deep-ball passing that seemed to waver at times this season.
Shaw was also nonexistent in the South Carolina rushing attack, accounting for -1 yards on 12 carries and being sacked four times by the Tigers.
Bottom line—you can't throw fourth-quarter interceptions and take sacks deep within your territory.
Marcus Lattimore's incredible second effort on a two-yard touchdown run put the Gamecocks back on top in the third quarter, but for the most part, South Carolina's most recognizable player—in many ways the team's most valuable player—was shut down and taken out of the game by the Tigers.
Lattimore finished with 35 yards on 13 carries as LSU keyed in and shut down the South Carolina backfield all night. Ultimately, it forced Steve Spurrier to limit his carries to only three in the second half and rely on the passing game for the rest of the night.
LSU's success in stopping Lattimore and the run turned the Gamecocks into a one-dimensional offense and forced Connor Shaw to have to make big plays he ultimately could not in the end.
It's tough to grade Lattimore at only a C when his effort was certainly there—even when his offensive line's wasn't at times. But 35 yards is still 35 yards and not nearly what you need from an All-American running back on the road in a place like Death Valley.
Last week, the Gamecocks' front five received high praise during the game against Georgia with claims that they were beginning to gel at the right time and find their chemistry...
LSU's defense rocked the Gamecocks up front, not only holding South Carolina to 34 yards rushing but only 177 through the air. The Tigers also sacked Connor Shaw four times and were incessant in keeping him as uncomfortable as possible with every snap.
Their inability to create running opportunities or give Marcus Lattimore a chance to really get up the field was a major catalyst for the Gamecocks' offensive struggles.
A personal foul might have partially negated Ace Sanders' 61-yard punt return in the third quarter but, once again, Sanders gave the Gamecocks life when they needed it as well as big plays.
As a receiver, Sanders caught five balls for 49 yards, including a first-quarter touchdown that got the Gamecocks on the board.
He was as bright a light as any for South Carolina against the Tigers and certainly more reason for future punters to kick out of bounds or away from No. 1.
South Carolina's star defensive end has had "Predator vision" on opposing quarterbacks and running backs, accounting for 6.5 sacks this season and plenty of consideration to be the best defensive player in the country.
Clowney finished the game against LSU with six tackles and without a sack for only the second game this season. Clearly, the star defensive end was well game-planned by the Tigers, as he struggled against a battered LSU offensive line that played above and beyond to keep the Gamecocks at bay.
Pre-game analysts scouted Clowney for struggling at times against the run and over-pursuing the play to the point of taking himself out of it altogether. That, combined with LSU's ability to push around the vaunted Gamecock defensive line, contributed to Clowney's struggles.
Coming into the LSU game, South Carolina was holding opposing offenses to under 100 yards on the ground and, with the Tigers being held to only 42 yards against Florida, the Gamecocks looked to be in a prime position to stifle another running attack.
Far from it.
The Gamecocks' defense was blown off the line, giving up 258 yards rushing, including 124 yards to Tigers back Jeremy Hill. His 50 yard breakaway in the fourth quarter sealed South Carolina's fate and put LSU ahead for the rest of the game.
And it didn't hurt that the Gamecocks could not stop LSU on third down, as the Tigers converted 11 of 19 attempts and kept their offense on the field.
I still have to give the defense a passing grade because they did step up in the red zone, allowing only one touchdown to LSU on five visits. If they had not been more obdurate, the score could have been a lot rougher for South Carolina.
A big part of the higher grade for the South Carolina secondary goes to Jimmy Legree, whose 70-yard interception in the first quarter set up the Gamecocks' first touchdown.
Throughout the rest of the game, the secondary was relatively efficient as Zach Mettenberger only completed 12 of 25 passes for 148 yards, but the Tigers' quarterback rose to the occasion on at least four third-down throws that become big pick-ups in the passing game.
Take away Legree's timely interception and the grade would probably fall to C.
The above picture tells it all. A game that was just out of reach for South Carolina.
A lot of people wanted to get on Steve Spurrier for the play-calling. Why not run the ball more in the second half when up 7-3?
In the Ol' Ball Coach's defense, how can you run the ball when you are not able to run the ball?
The fact is, the Gamecocks were rocked on both the offensive and defensive line. LSU stifled the South Carolina running attack all game long. Thirty-four total yards pretty much sums that up.
And where in previous close games Marcus Lattimore has been able to put the team on his back and create big plays and control the clock, that game plan was completely ineffective against the Tigers.
As good as Connor Shaw is at quarterback, he's not necessarily the kind of quarterback that can win the game with his arm when he isn't allowed to run. (Subtracting sack yards, only 29 yards of rushing.) It's no strike to him as he has been excellent this season. It's just a position he has not had to be in often enough to be comfortable.
On defense, it's really quite simple (Warning: Obvious Yokel Commentary Comment!): if you can't stop the run and stop the other team on third down, you're not going to be successful.
Now I am sure some of you are going to be super critical, deathly critical of how South Carolina played against LSU. Some pessimists from other teams might even gloat with an "I told you so."
The reality is—and Spurrier is already preaching the right rhetoric—the Gamecocks still control their own destiny in winning the SEC East and staying in the hunt to win the entire SEC.
Next week in Gainesville, College GameDay again will be the backdrop of a the Gamecocks' third Top Ten game in a row. A victory over the Gators puts them in prime position to get back to the Georgia Dome.
Who knows—maybe they'll get their rematch against the Tigers.