With the Commodores coming into the game a trendy upset pick, South Carolina took care of business, winning 21-3 and going to 4-0 on the year for the first time during Steve Spurrier's tenure in Columbia. Unfortunately, though, this win was a bit less than satisfying. The quarterback controversy is back with a vengeance, and that's not a position you want to be in heading into a huge game against the Auburn Tigers. After seemingly winning back the starting job with gusto with a solid performance against East Carolina, Stephen Garcia's performance has deteriorated with each subsequent game. I think it may be safe to say, though, that tonight's tilt with Vanderbilt was the worst of them all--perhaps the worst of his career. Garcia has seemingly regressed to 2008-Outback Bowl levels of ineptitude. He threw four interceptions, and outside of one or two plays, his passes were almost all off the mark somehow or another. Even his longer completions were generally bad passes; a couple can only be described as circus catches, heady plays by the receivers at best and simply lucky at worst, and others were thrown behind receivers, costing us yards after the catch. Likely much later than most of us would have liked, Spurrier finally opted to put Connor Shaw into the game. Shaw, for his part, made a couple of decent plays, but he also missed a wide open receiver on an underneath crossing route. Although he can say that he didn't turn the ball over, he hardly made a decisive statement for himself. Needless to say, Spurrier has a lot to think about heading into the Auburn game.
The good news is that our defense came to play in this game. The defense was, in a word, completely dominant, holding Vandy to 77 yards and only five first downs. Undoubtedly, Vandy's offensive ineptitude gets part of the credit for those numbers; Vandy, particularly QB Larry Smith, made many, many ugly plays in this game, and the offensive gameplan had to have been one of the more vanilla, risk-averse schemes I've ever seen a team use. That said, the defense did a number of things that I liked a lot. First of all, it was clear that Ellis Johnson and his staff took note of all the success East Carolina and Georgia had on short passing routes, and the more aggressive coverage schemes they installed for this game--along with impressive tackling by the defensive backs--were extremely effective in shutting down the many screens, slants, and sweeps that Vandy ran. Second of all, our defensive line was simply magnificent. Granted, Vandy's offensive line is going to get manhandled all year, but you have to like the penetration we got, and the number of passes we tipped might have been even more impressive. There were a handful of "wow" plays by the group, such as Jadeveon Clowney's forced fumble late in the game. Smith--poor guy--was in bad shape at game's end after getting nailed so many times. I think this was a coming out party of sorts for our pass rush, which hasn't been to show out a whole lot due to the offensive schemes we've faced so far.
However, there's not a whole lot of reason to be happy about this win. Although Vandy did have a little momentum coming into this game, I came away feeling like we would have whipped them by 40 or so if we had remotely played well. To our credit, we did cover the spread, but it should be noted that if not for another wild defensive score and a fluke catch by Ace Sanders, this could have very well been a 7-3 ballgame. Marcus Lattimore and our defense will give us a chance in all of our contests, but if we're going to live up to our preseason billing as a contender for the SEC Title, our passing game is going to have to get better. If anyone thinks we're capable of consistently beating good teams with the kind of performance we put in today, they're dreaming.
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A few additional observations:
--I found the playcalling by Spurrier in this game to be extremely odd. It seems abundantly obvious to me that we should be working the underneath routes, screens, etc., in the passing game, but we threw for lots of deep routes while Garcia was in. Then, when Shaw finally got into the game, we became extremely conservative, running the ball on almost every down. My impression was that once it became clear that we didn't need to worry much about Vandy making a comeback because of the Dores' offensive woes, Spurrier wanted to give Garcia as many chances as possible to hit a deep ball. Unfortunately, it never happened. I would have much rather seen us try to run a more balanced offense throughout the game. While I think it would be good for Garcia to hit one of those deep balls, I also think it would be good to allow him to get into a rhythm as a game-manager. A lot of the deep throws seemed extremely forced in this game, and if we slowed down and ran our offense, we might find that Garcia would settle in a bit.
--One of the more worrisome things that we saw in this game was that Vandy provided a nice blueprint for slowing down Carolina's offense, largely stifling Lattimore--relatively speaking, at least--in the ground game by stacking the box and using the linebackers to key in on the run. Granted, if we hadn't been so committed to either running or throwing deep downfield, we probably could have found some other ways to loosen up Vandy's rushing defense.
--I was less impressed with our offensive line after this game than in the previous three. The group didn't open as many holes for Lattimore (although the aforementioned defensive schemes had a lot to do with that), and it committed too many penalties. The penalties were particularly troublesome, as some of them cost the offense big gains. That needs to end, and quick.
--I can only imagine how frustrated Alshon Jeffery is right now. The talented receiver is watching his hopes of earning All-America honors go up in smoke because his QB can't get him the ball. It's really a shame that we have a guy like him on our roster and can't make better use of him.
--I found the officiating in this game to be extremely frustrating. We might have put up many more points in this game if not for a number of untimely penalties that negated sizeable gains, and while I can't blame the officials for calling the penalties they saw, I thought they let Vandy get away with quite a few obvious infractions.
That's a wrap on this one, folks. I'll be back tomorrow to talk about which QB I believe should start against Auburn next week.