Being There We all know how it turned out, but the entire week -- festivities, atmosphere, decoration of the Georgia Dome -- was a celebration of the first SEC East championship for South Carolina. The Gamecocks broke one ceiling by getting to the game and while they still have a couple to go, one is out of the way. Think about that. For one week, USC was being talked about as part of the biggest game in the country (up until the BCS National Championship Game, the SEC Championship Game is it), and whether or not it was usually as, "Auburn's opponent, USC," it was still USC. The result doesn't change the journey USC took to get there.
Tough skinMarcus Lattimore didn't score, but he had over 100 all-purpose yards and kept getting back up after some hard hits. Auburn never quit the vicious tackling, knocking Lattimore high-low on several plays and blasting him in mid-air when he elevated to catch a sideline pass. With 84 rushing yards and 36 receiving yards, Lattimore had a decent day, if not an excellent one, but he's had plenty of those this year. It surely was better than the first time he faced Auburn, although the result was much more hurtful.
West CoastStephen Garcia directed a masterful two-minute drive to notch a touchdown just before halftime, covering 80 yards in only nine plays and 1:46. Lattimore got good holes to run through and Garcia did a great job of picking Lattimore up over the middle for a 26-yard catch-and-run. I figured he would run at least one play with Lattimore or Patrick DiMarco up the gut, but instead, he fired right to Alshon Jeffery for a 1-yard scoring bullet, where Jeffery caught it under his defender.
Starting off I thought the game plan (offensively) was grand to begin the game. The Gamecocks knew Auburn would load up to stop the run and would key on Lattimore, so Garcia threw over the Tigers. Lattimore only handled the ball twice in that seven-play drive, Garcia either keeping or throwing to Jeffery or D.L. Moore. Then the touchdown featured DiMarco coming out of the backfield, not to the corner like he had been doing but straight over the middle. Easy lob and catch for the senior fullback.
D gets an F I get the thinking, I do. Ellis Johnson knew Cameron Newton had killed the Gamecocks with his feet in the previous meeting, so he held off on the pass-rush, covered man-to-man and dared Newton to pass. The problems with that scheme were two-fold: one, man-to-man coverage is worthless unless the men are actually covering their men; and two, give a guy enough time to stand back there -- and there were times when Newton had time to cook an hour's worth of minute rice -- and he will find an open receiver. Newton went deep on the second play and caught Stephon Gilmore biting on the fake, which became a 62-yard completion to Darvin Adams. From there on, the scheme was worthless, as was the defense's confidence. Three games of solid play? Kaput.
From bad to worse Obviously not Gilmore's best game, and one of the factors that could have helped reverse it was very early. Game tied at 7, Auburn driving, Newton had Adams running across the middle but threw behind him. Gilmore was in pursuit, because Adams had broken for a step on him, but when Adams reached back to try and grab it, the deflected pass hit Gilmore in the hands and he couldn't hold on. The past three games, USC's defense has caught those and sometimes turned them into touchdowns. That one would have at least squelched Auburn's second touchdown drive.
Hold on Thirteenth game of the year. Thirteenth. The time for miscommunication from the sideline and questioning by the players on what to do on which audible is long since past. Yet with the Gamecocks trying to tie the game at 14 in the first quarter, Garcia had to call timeout with 3:33 to go and talk with Steve Spurrier on the sideline. That play became a sideline incompletion to Moore. Third-and-7, 3:22 showing, again a timeout. Again a discussion on the sideline. Again an incompletion. As was proven, championship teams don't make mistakes like this.
Special Why do I have to write this every week? Because it's the same old story. What is going on with USC's special teams? Long return every game -- check. Hardly any kick returns of their own -- check. Some kind of screwup on where to place the kickoff -- check. And on Saturday, the unit's most dependable player, Spencer Lanning, missed two field goals. Did they matter in the long run? No way. But when he missed the second, the two shanks would have cut a two-touchdown deficit to eight points. Even when D.J. Swearinger took over for one kickoff return, he was quickly subbed out on the next try and replaced once more with Bryce Sherman. I refuse to believe there are not more options on the sideline, especially with the continued futility of the present returners. Kenny Miles? Any one of the backup wide receivers? Geez, put in Matt Coffee and let him get used to running into tackles, since he'll probably be starting fullback next year.
Breakdown Garcia, like Lattimore, hung in for quite a beating until he finally snapped. The line offered him hardly any protection and Auburn's defense never quit charging. There was just nowhere to turn, and when he got hit one time too many, he made one of those "Garcia mistakes" that he has become known for in years past and had seemed to shed over the past three weeks.
Never Mess with a Winning Streak Only I would notice this, but I feel compelled. For 12 games, Cedrick Snead led the team out of the tunnel. Snead didn't lead them out in the 13th. To quote "Bull Durham," "If you believe you're winning because you're getting (loved), or because you're not getting (loved), or because you wear women's underwear, then YOU ARE! And you should know that!"
Nothing to do with USC But because I want to. Newton spoke to the media for the first time since Nov. 9 and of course he and Gene Chizik said they only wanted to talk about the game and other games. Newton proclaims, "I've done nothing wrong." Then why not talk about it, Cam? You're innocent, tell your side of the story. One of my fellow scribes -- don't know who, but I owe him a thank-you -- broke the rule by asking if Newton's father, since he's disassociated from the program now, would be allowed to travel to the Heisman ceremony. That brought a swift interruption from Chizik.
D gets an F, Part II Once the initial plan broke down, there was no adjustment. Not that it would have helped, short of putting 20 men on the field. The secondary didn't cover their receivers, the line didn't get any pressure on Newton and began losing tackles on the runners, the blitzers couldn't wrap up (I think it was Antonio Allen who had at least three cracks at Newton and touched him every time, but slid right off the guy). The Gamecocks allowed nine third-down conversions in 12 tries, one a 55-yard touchdown over Gilmore. Johnson said it was a multitude of missed assignments and that it wasn't one piece of the defense's fault, it was a group effort, and not many can doubt that. He got a little testy when asked if the secondary was just too broken, pointing out it had made a lot of plays in the previous three weeks, but let's look at it. The Gamecocks didn't play a downfield passing team in the last three weeks.
Squib Why give the best player in the game a short field? Spurrier said the kick was supposed to be a liner to the corner and it was just flubbed. Don't see why, with 16 seconds left and a non-threatening returner waiting, anything but a traditional high booming kick is an option, but that's probably why I don't coach. It happened, the screen pass happened, and then ...
Hail Cam Johnson said that not many quarterbacks can make that throw. USC faced one that could, and did. DeVonte Holloman said that he thought he tipped it away. It popped up. Akeem Auguste said he just didn't get over in time. It hurt. Adams caught that deflection, and that two-touchdown deficit might as well have been five touchdowns. The Gamecocks couldn't get off that sideline quick enough and any momentum they had was irretrievable.
Garcia He had played so well over the last few weeks and kept getting up on Saturday, yet when he was blitzed in his own end zone, Garcia, for a split second, lost all that experience. As he was frantically backpedaling, the guy hit him, and instead of tucking it (which probably would have been a safety), he tried to wing it. He didn't throw right to the shins or the ground, but got it up enough for a pick-six. Bad, bad way to end the biggest game of his career. If any momentum remained after the Hail Mary, it was gone after that.
The Situation Surprisingly, I only heard a few "Same old USC" grumbles afterward. Most seem to realize that despite Saturday, this has been a magnificent season. What the loss does, though, is make winning the bowl game imperative. No matter who, no matter where (Auguste said he hoped the Gamecocks don't go anywhere cold), USC has to win. They don't, it's three straight bowl losses, four straight unfinished seasons and a slide back down the hill to mediocrity. Win the game, take the 10th victory and continue building what this season has become. That will impress recruits, which can add to an extremely talented team for next year. The Gamecocks must win the bowl. Must.