September 23, 2011

Cloninger: Here comes the boom



"The city's burning,
It's like it's ready to explode."
---------------------------- R.E.M.

South Carolina got a little better against Navy. Now to really get in gear against Vanderbilt.

I know, Vanderbilt's no pushover. The Commodores have the same record as USC (3-0) and are playing confidently and well under first-year coach James Franklin. He's brought an attitude of "forget about the past" to the historical doormat program, and his players believe it.

The No. 12 Gamecocks haven't played anywhere close to their preseason hype, which is why they've been on "upset watch" in every week of the season. Coach Steve Spurrier continues to stress that his team is not playing very well, and the players agree.

But here's the rub - it's all set to come together on Saturday. Vanderbilt is 3-0, but it's 3-0 keyed by its defense, which hasn't faced anything close to the caliber of offense it will see on Saturday. And the Commodores' offense will be facing a defense that, while not playing to its potential, was facing three completely different offenses in the first three games.

USC is in perfect position to connect all the pieces into one masterpiece of a puzzle. Perhaps having the pressure of a ticked-off Auburn team coming to Columbia next week will only expedite the process.

That being, the Gamecocks have had a fuse lit under them, and this week, the powder keg bursts.

Expecting any USC athletic team to do anything of substance has been a cocked bear trap over the years. Hope almost always became expectation and often, the hope was too much. The team performed as it probably should have, but supporters were left feeling disappointed.

It's gotten better - much better - recently. The football team has had a string of non-losing seasons (the 6-6 mark in 2007 keeping that from being a string of winning seasons). The women's basketball team seems to be on the cusp of an outstanding season. Shoot, the men's tennis team signed the No. 3 recruiting class in the country.

And there was something the baseball team did - twice.

The hope/expectation carried over into football, with so much talent returning to USC, but in the first three games, the Gamecocks have not played up to it. They have trailed in all three games, and although they have won each of them, the play to do it has not been solid.

Spurrier seemed pleased that he just had the first back-to-back three-point wins in his career, and perhaps he was. I think he'd be smiling a lot more if his team would control a ballgame from the start and be able to cruise to the finish line.

That week is here. Vanderbilt's offensive line is young and suspect, and the Gamecocks have a trio of pass-rushers who can make life very difficult. While the Commodores' best receiver, Chris Boyd, has seven catches for 105 yards and three touchdowns and is going against a secondary that has not been good against the pass, quarterback Larry Smith only completes 53.5 percent of his passes.

While Vanderbilt's defense has been marvelous, holding opponents to 85.7 ground yards per game, it hasn't faced anybody with half the talent of Marcus Lattimore, the country's top rusher. As long as Stephen Garcia does what he did last week - playing smart, picking the field apart on short passes and delaying the deep ball until he's completely sure it's there - he has more than enough room to whip the Commodores with his array of receivers.

This is the perfect matchup, the perfect time for USC to add it together and be what it should be - a championship-worthy team. Do it this week, carry it into next and see what happens from there.

Another poor performance, even one that becomes a win?

Hope and expectation feel that trap snag them, and there's no telling when the hunter will be along to collect.

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