First off: Congrats to Florida St. The Seminoles came to play last night, took advantage of several Gamecocks miscues, and saddled up for a key TD drive to put the game away when it appeared Carolina had some momentum. Lest anyone call their victory tainted in some way by the absence of Marcus Lattimore, we should also remember that FSU was without its offensive star, Christian Ponder, for most of the night. In a game with lots of hard hits, turnovers, and wild plays, the winning team often doesn't play a perfect game and, instead, simply weathers the storm. That's what FSU did. I'd also like to say that the FSU fans I met were friendly and courteous for the most part. To all you 'Noles out there who were in Atlanta, I hope you enjoyed your trip.
For Carolina, the loss leaves us with a lot of questions. We didn't play quite as poorly as we did in the Outback and Papa John's Bowls in 2008 and 2009, but we certainly didn't play the best game of our season. We continued to have trouble on the big stage, and, despite the firsts we registered this year, this loss coupled with the one against Auburn are going to leave us wondering why we were unable to seal the deal on the year. It was a good year, no doubt, but we failed to transition from "good" to "monumental."
We'll have time to talk about what this season means over the next few weeks, though. For now, here are a few quick thoughts on what happened last night.
It's hard to gauge what losing Lattimore meant last night. It didn't hurt us in the way you'd expect: once Spurrier recommitted to running the football in the second quarter, Kenny Miles and Brian Maddox ran the ball quite well. (Surprisingly so, considering FSU's run defense numbers; you really have to give those two and the offensive line some credit for how they played.) However, losing Lattimore seems to really affect Stephen Garcia for some reason. He seems relatively calm and collected when he knows that Lattimore is in the game, and when he's not, he reverts to 2008-era Garcia. If losing Lattimore changed the game, that's probably how it did so most significantly.
I place most of the blame for this loss on Garcia. I like Garcia and appreciate the progress he's made and what he's given to this program. However, let's call this what it is: last night was an awful, awful night for him. His overall numbers outside of the INTs don't look that bad on the face of it, but they don't tell the whole story. First of all, a couple of the INTs were absurdly bad throws. The first one was thrown into coverage while Garcia was scrambling and throwing off his right foot. When he wasn't getting picked, Garcia also missed a few sure-fire TDs, the two that mainly come to mind being a late-first-quarter throw to Alshon Jeffery (corner route, if memory serves) and a wheel route to Maddox (Maddox almost made a diving grab but would have easily caught it and gone the distance if Garcia hits him in stride). Hitting either one of those turns this into a completely different game. In his defense, Garcia did play better later in the game, but still. At the end of the day, he's horribly inconsistent and can't be relied upon to be the focal point of the offense. That's not good for a QB under a pass-friendly coach like Spurrier, and I, for one, will be keeping a close eye on news about the development of Connor Shaw over the off-season.
The defense had a very solid game. There were some meltdowns, to be sure, like on the final FSU TD. However, the defense stood tall while Garcia was doing his best to let the Seminoles turn the game into a laugher. If they don't force those early FGs, we never get back into the game. They deserve a lot of credit for playing well in adverse circumstances.
Missed opportunities. In a close game like this, you often wonder what might have been if a few more plays had gone your way. There were a lot of those last night. We failed to recover a couple of FSU fumbles, a common theme for the Gamecocks over the past few years. There were some dropped passes. Alshon fumbled in a key moment while trying to make a good gain into something even bigger. This ended up being one of those games that's fairly evenly played but where one team makes most of the key plays. It wasn't us.
Special teams hurt us last night. We gave up some big returns, managed almost nothing in the return game for ourselves, had some killer penalties, and failed to recover a fumble when having done so might very well have won us the game. I certainly hope some changes are in the works here for next season.
That's a wrap on this one. We'll be talking more over the next few weeks about what we did and didn't accomplish this year and what we need to be thinking about heading into next season. Until then, enjoy the rest of the bowls and a Happy New Year to everyone.