The 2012 Tennessee game will always, always be the game remembered more for one play than the result of the game. Like Mississippi State last season the game will be the one when Marcus got hurt. It was one of the worst injuries I've ever witnessed on the football field, and it happened to one of the best people I've ever seen play.
It is heartbreaking, unfair and overshadowing. It is not, however, terminal. Marcus Lattimore is very much alive, and he is already beginning his recovery. Plans are no doubt already being made to heal his leg and allow him to continue his life, on the football field, perhaps, and certainly off of it. Anyone who has watched Marcus for these three years knows he will go on and so will this season and so will this team.
The game itself was frustrating. The defense that has been so strong for so many games yielded nearly 500 yards. Akeem Aguste aggravated a nagging groin injury during the week and was unavailable. Given the way the Vols passed, it would have been nice to have him. The USC defense had no answers for the UT passing attack. At one point D.J. Swearinger moved to cornerback for a while to try to stop the attack. Almost nothing worked.
Late in the game as Tennessee drew close it looked more and more like the defense wasn't going to be able to get a stop. When they got UT to third down, they converted. When they didn't they got it on fourth down. The mounting frustration didn't make it any easier to defend. Ultimately, it was going to take a turnover or some outstanding individual play to hold on to the game. USC got two such plays. Jadeveon Clowney became the first defensive lineman to sack Tyler Bray all year, and he forced the fumble the Gamecocks desperately needed. Later Victor Hampton, whom Bray had stayed away from much of the day, sealed the game with an acrobatic interception.
As frustrating as it was to have the game in the balance late against an inferior Tennessee team, the blame doesn't fall wholly on the defense. Going into the game it was a safe bet that Volunteer aerial attack was going to produce points somewhere in the 20s or 30s. USC stopped them on 7 of their 12 meaningful drives. While not outstanding, there's no reason to panic. I had been optimistic that UT might quit if they fell behind enough. Unfortunately, they never did.
The Gamecocks offense scored on half of their meaningful drives and did just enough to win. Connor Shaw threw for 356 yards which was the 10th most in a single game in Carolina history. USC had two receivers, Justice Cunningham and Bruce Ellington, eclipse 100 yards in a game for the first time since 2010. Before his injury Marcus Lattimore had 65 yards on 11 carries.
Connor Shaw gained 59 yards rushing and lost 26. (Sacks count against a quarterback's rushing total.) When plays break down or receivers aren't open is when Shaw is at his most dangerous, both to the defense and to his team's field position. He is much more likely to keep a play alive by scrambling or look to run downfield than he is too throw the ball away. Coach Spurrier has alluded to this several times when talking about Shaw. Historically the HBC has admonished his quarterbacks to make their reads and throw rather than run. Spurrier has been slower to force that style on Connor because he can be so productive with his feet. Shaw will continue to convert key third downs and continue to force teams to scheme against his running ability, but he will also continue to take sacks when the prudent course is throwing the ball away.
Shaw made good use of the tight ends all day Saturday. Rory Anderson and Justice Cunningham are bona fide offensive weapons that were used nicely. They combined for 9 receptions, 166 yards, and a touchdown.
Running back is now an area of concern. Without Marcus Lattimore and Shon Carson depth is lacking. Kenny Miles is still a capable back and will be the starter. Mike Davis looked good on Saturday, and his carries will probably continue to increase. Brandon Wilds will dress against Arkansas and may have to burn his redshirt.
Special teams were at times adequate and at times above average. Tyler Hull, much maligned at times this season, had a strong punting day and had his best when it mattered the most at the end of the day. Our kicking strategy was sound as well. Patterson had 5 yards returning on two chances. It's safe to say he was completely neutralized, which is a credit both to the execution on the field and Special Teams' Coach Joe Robinson's scheme.
At the final whistle South Carolina remained on top. For the third time in three years and fourth time in five, South Carolina has beaten Tennessee. This is the first time the Gamecocks have beaten the Vols three years in a row. With the projected losses for UT next year and South Carolina's comparative depth, can we safely say the Gamecocks have moved past the Volunteers? I think so, and it appears to be a long term trend, not a passing anomaly.
Get more great South Carolina sports analysis over at Leftover Hot Dog.