Thursday, September 10

...And you may tell yourself, "My God! What have I done?": The South Carolina preview.

And you may tell yourself, "This is not my beautiful offense!" And you may tell yourself, "This is not my beautiful quarterback!"

Hometown: Columbia, South Carolina.

Last season: Recovered from an 0-2 SEC start to win six of their next seven games but got bitchmade by Florida and Clemson to close out the regular season, then laid a five-turnover turd on the field against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Finished 7-6 (4-4 in the SEC) and without any votes in either major poll.

Hate index: Seven and a half, down from nine last year. With the Dawgs having exacted their revenge for 2007's upset, and me having met a very bright and perfectly respectable Gamecock fan in person during SEC Media Days earlier this summer, I'm willing to cut them a little slack. Honestly, I'm just having too much fun watching how tired Steve Spurrier seems to be looking these days.

Associated hottie: Brooke Taylor was one of a select group of Gamecock coeds deemed worthy of representing USC in the Playboy "Girls of the SEC" issue that dropped two years ago, and while you might be tempted to assume from her looks and her Gamecock status that she's an airhead, her Playboy profile does indicate she knows how to speak Swahili, which is more than your dumb ass has learned to do.

What excites me: An entire presidential term into the Spurrier Administration, we're still waiting on that fearsome offense we all thought the Ol' Ballcoach was going to build in Columbia. In his first four years at USC, Spurrier's offense has averaged just a tick under 350 yards per game and a 74th-in-the-nation ranking, and that's including the highly anomalous 2006 season in which they finished 20th; those numbers represent little, if any advance over Lou Holtz's last four years in Columbia, during which time the Gamecocks averaged a #78 national ranking and 350.9 yards per game.

What's different this year? Well, Spurrier's golden boy, Stephen Garcia, is going to be flying completely solo for the first time, and in another first, he hasn't managed to miss any preseason practice due to some kind of suspension. Mazel tov to both Steves for that. But nobody who saw South Carolina's debut against N.C. State last Thursday should be all that overwhelmed just yet: Garcia went 13-of-22 for a mere 148 yards, one pick, and no TDs. Which means his QB rating was only seven negligible points higher than the Saturday performance by Joe Cox that has so many Georgia fans tearing their hair out. Outside of one head-slapper of an interception (to none other than former Bulldog Michael Lemon), he didn't look like the pick machine that almost singlehandedly sunk the Gamecocks' chances in last season's Outback Bowl, but neither did he do anything especially heroic, and frequently got antsy enough in the pocket to take off running early despite having an open receiver.

Then again, if I was playing behind a South Carolina offensive line, I might get antsy too. The line has been a source of frustration for Gamecock fans for years now, and it didn't appear to make dramatic progress on Thursday: despite Garcia's willingness to tuck it and run, he still got taken down three times, and the rushing game collectively averaged a mere 2.6 yards per carry. Outside of a couple nice spurts up the middle by fullback Patrick DiMarco, I saw nothing to indicate that the ground game is going to be a threat.

I'm going to have to ask you to stay right where you are, sir.

This is particularly good news combined with the revelation that our defense, if their performance against Oklahoma State is any indication, knows what they're doing after all. Take away the Cowboys' 2008 game against Missouri State, in which the Bears were so overmatched that Mike Gundy saw fit to pull QB Zac Robinson after only four pass attempts, and Robinson's 135 yards on Saturday was the second-lowest output of his career as a starter. RB Kendall Hunter, who never broke off a run longer than 10 yards, was rendered a non-factor; his backup, Keith "Jonathan Cock" Toston, had some nice runs, but most of them came on the final drive of the game when the Cowboys had a comfortable lead and had throttled down into run-out-the-clock mode. Any one of those guys would be superior to any of the skill-position players on South Carolina's roster, and if I were a Georgia defender I'd literally be licking my chops at the prospect of going after them.

Finally, if the game follows its usual low-scoring defensive-slugfest blueprint -- and more on that later -- the Gamecocks appear to be coming in at a decided disadvantage. Whereas Georgia placekicker Blair Walsh nailed a career-long field goal in Stillwater last week, SC's Spencer Lanning whiffed on an attempt from only 27 yards, while another attempt from 30 got blown up by a botched snap.

Now the bad news, and we all know where that starts.

What worries me: As threadbare as South Carolina's offense looked in their 2009 debut, nobody on the Georgia side really has any reason to get smug about it. The 257 total yards we scraped together against OSU was our lowest offensive output since last year's 14-7 win over South Carolina, and Joe Cox offered little reason for optimism as either a passer or a game manager. And this was all against a defense that was injury-depleted on top of perennially being one of the most sieve-like in the BCS conferences.

The thing is, if it were just a talent issue, I wouldn't be that worried; good coaches can still turn out wins in circumstances like that, as rare as it is for Georgia to be facing a talent deficit to begin with. But if DawgsOnline is interpreting things accurately, the coaching against OSU wasn't that good, either:

“Coach (Tony) Ball’s in the box and he didn’t have direct contact with us,” (Michael) Moore said of Georgia’s receivers coach. “He kind of didn’t realize that until the end of the game. . . . We didn’t know what the rotation was going to be and we ended up sticking with basically three guys.”

“He said the game was moving so fast and he was trying to find out what plays worked and what didn’t work, and he said he just forgot, it slipped his mind,” (Marlon) Brown said.

Wow. I've seen a lot of hard-to-explain coaching fuckups in my time, but "forgot about the very existence of a pair of blue-chip receivers" is a new one even for me. The thing is, the way Cox was missing his reads and floating passes, it might not have made much difference.

And as much praise as I've heaped on the defense for the improvement they showed in their tackling, the fact remains that we were the one team in the SEC that didn't force a turnover in our opening game, nor did we sack Zac Robinson even once. At least one of those stats is going to have to perk up for us to accomplish anything this season, but the basis for hope is pretty slim: We sucked in both of those categories last year, too. Nor are we putting ourselves in any better position on kickoffs. I've got faith in our defense to keep the Gamecock offensive attack solidly in check, but that faith would be a lot more fervent if we could keep the Cocks from starting any drives on our side of the field, and with USC returning one of D-IA's better kick returners in Chris Culliver (24.1 yards per return last season), our coverage unit had better wake up.

Player who needs to have a big game: Instead of a player, I'm going with a coach this time -- offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Joe Cox may have had the most to prove in his debut, but Bobo is the one who has been taking the most heat (and rightfully so) for his head-scratching play calls for much of the Oklahoma State game. Look, OSU aside, we all know Bobo is no fool; he was, after all, the guy who directed our offense during Matt Stafford's dramatic improvement toward the end of 2006, our blitzkrieg run in the second half of 2007, and last year's blizzards of points against LSU, Georgia Tech, et al. But Stillwater was clearly not one of his finest moments, and he's gonna have to show a lot more flexibility and a lot more imagination in terms of both personnel decisions and play calls if the Dawgs are to earn back some respect.

What does it all mean? Let's be honest here: We all know how this game usually goes. It doesn't matter how well the Dawgs perform in their opener; we beat the pants off Boise State in '05 and humbled Oklahoma State in '07, yet got chased to the very final seconds by South Carolina following the former game and got punked by the Gamecocks following the latter. Even the 13-1 team of 2002 couldn't keep from getting embroiled in one of the lower-scoring, and more bizarre, games I've ever seen Georgia play.

I'm going to choose to try and remember the good(-er) times.

So the fact that Georgia rolls into this game coming off one of their worst offensive performances of the Richt era is something that, in a weird way, rolls right off my back. If we're gonna stumble over our own feet and struggle to make it to 17 points anyway, what does it matter whether our first game looked like? Maybe I'm being cynical here, but isn't it almost better that we sucked wind on offense against Oklahoma State, rather than getting our hopes jacked up by a blizzard of touchdowns?

Obviously I'm mostly rationalizing here: We've got big problems on offense, and the fact that Joe Cox is unlikely to play on Saturday night is actually only the second most important. The biggest is, as many bloggers who are smarter than I am have already pointed out, that we don't really have any kind of coherent identity on offense. Our coaching staff apparently came into the season still not having a handle on what we're good at, and it showed against Okie State. Even if Logan Gray is more naturally talented than Cox (as a lot of people in Bulldog Nation have already proposed) and the one who gives us the better chance to win, picking plays at random and throwing them against a wall in the hopes that something will stick isn't going to help Gray any more than it helped Cox in Stillwater.

Even before I got the word this morning that Cox would likely be out for Saturday's game, I was, at the risk of appearing presumptuous, proposing that we go with the assumption that we're one of those pound-it-between-the-tackles running teams. I feel even more confident in that advice now, at least until Logan Gray (or an opposing defense) gives us reason to believe otherwise. Richard Samuel obviously has not been immune to the criticism lobbed at all aspects of our offensive performance at OSU, but he did have some decent success against their defense until Bobo started arbitrarily throwing darts at the playbook. He may or may not be joined by the fresh legs of Caleb King this week, but between Samuel and Shaun Chapas, I've got more faith in the running game's ability to grind out some yards than in Gray's chances of having a breakout performance against a pass defense that held a preseason first-team All-ACC quarterback to only 74 yards. Commit to the run early, stick with it until it gets into a groove, and then start taking some chances with the pass -- remembering, of course, that we've got guys like Brown and Wooten available to catch it.

[Editor's note: Not 30 minutes after I put this thing up, the news comes down that Cox will be starting after all on Saturday. Jesus tap-dancing Christ. Not that this really changes anything that I said about going run-first, but still, when even the midweek press conferences are driving you to cardiac events, that's a good sign it's gonna be a rough season. I may not even survive to see the Arizona State game.]

As for the defense, I can't really tell them to do anything scheme-wise that's all that different from what they did last Saturday; as far as the basics are concerned, they looked great in Stillwater. But they need to ramp up the intensity and aggressiveness in doing those same things this week, because it's gonna be a long day if we don't get any pressure at all on Garcia, an even longer one if we once again find ourselves behind in the turnover battle.

That's not how a ninja protects the ball.

I'm tempted to advise Willie Martinez to goad Garcia into bad decisions by simply blitzing him like it's going out of style; if we can hold a receiver as dangerous as Dez Bryant to only three catches, I'd like to think we can clamp down on South Carolina's receiving corps without taking too many extraordinary measures. But the Gamecocks managed to have a pretty good passing game against us last year by exploiting some tricky matchups against our secondary, and they'll have a decent shot at doing it again on Saturday. Moe Brown, who sliced us for 130 yards on seven receptions a year ago, is back, and while hulking tight end Jared Cook isn't, his replacement, Weslye Saunders, outweighs him by 40 pounds; I doubt he'll play as big a role in the passing game as Cook did, but he'll be even harder to tackle. Somehow we've got to take Brown out of the game while simultaneously pressuring Garcia quickly enough to keep him from using Saunders as a safety valve. I think we'll have an easier time against Carolina's O-line than we did against Oklahoma State's, but the way we've been sacking (or, more accurately, not sacking) QBs over the last season-plus, I can't just assume that we will.

As for special teams, jeez, who knows -- given what a low-scoring game this is likely to be, I like the fact that South Carolina appears to be the squad more likely to miss critical field goals. But we still appear to be operating with a completely arbitrary philosophy as far as both kickoffs and kickoff coverage. I still don't think South Carolina has the wheels to run up a whole pile of yardage on us, but if they end up starting a bunch of their drives past their own 35, it may not matter. Nor will it matter if we offer up the ball on a silver platter. I think Paul's on the right track here with his assessment vis-a-vis turnovers, but I'm going to be even tougher: If we end up with any kind of negative turnover margin at all, it's going to be tough for us to win this game.

In the end, I'd like to think that a more reliable running game operating behind a superior offensive line (even taking into account the loss of Sturdivant) will be the difference here. And as frustrating as these annual low-scoring nailbiters surely are to our fans and coaches alike, we've proven we can still win those on a fairly consistent basis; Carolina has only done so once in the last seven tries. But depending on an on-paper talent advantage to carry the day isn't going to work. We've got to be smart about which plays we choose to run and which players we choose to run them, and we have to be willing to adapt our philosophy to the actual circumstances on the field.

I know everyone's looking forward to watching Spurrier pull his hair out over the continuing failures of his supposedly beautiful offense, and this is certainly a big game for him: Lose this one and the idea that the Stephen Garcia era will be more productive than the Smelley or Mitchell eras (or even the Phil Petty era, for Christ's sake) takes a big hit. But for the first time in a long time, this game might be more critical for us than it is for the Gamecocks. Lose, and we start heading down the same road we headed down in 2006, with a moribund offense that takes several games and a lot of quarterback-flipping to even start figuring out. The only difference is that even that troubled '06 team was fortunate enough to start the season 5-0, enough cushion to piss our pants against Vandy and Kentucky and still finish the season 9-4. If we start off 0-2 for only the second time since I became a rabid Dawg fan in the first place, and still have two months of offensive frustration ahead of us, who the hell knows where we end up?

My knee-jerk guess: sitting here during bowl season.

So it's time to sack up, coaches. Recognize the areas in which we're deficient, make changes, and we've got a chance to turn this around. Sit back and just depend on everything to get better on its own, though, and we've embarked on a long, unpleasant season. Georgia's been a solid enough program that we don't face too many desperate situations, and thus few contests that meet the most critical definition of the "must-win game," but this is one of those games. Time to get our collective asses up off our collective shoulders and stop depending on things to just magically work themselves out.

If you're trash-talking: "Scoreboard" works; "won fewer than a quarter of your games against us all-time" does too. And when this game inevitably turns into a trench battle that's lower-scoring than a handful of MLB games taking place the same night, you can always whip out "We've averaged only 17 points a game against you in the Mark Richt era and have still gone 6-2," though that one's a bit wordy.

I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia shuts South Carolina out. We did it in 2006, and by God, we should be making it our goal to do it again. (Hell, we may have to do it again if we want to win.) I seriously doubt we're going to come out of this game with our offense having gained back much of the respect it lost in Stillwater, but I'd hope we can at least come out of it with some confidence that our D will be putting the fear of God into people for the foreseeable future.


chg said...

I took Swahili for a week in Columbia before dropping it. Had Miss Taylor been in my class of 15, I think I would have stuck it out.

Gamecock Fan said...

There's no way you shut us out. No way, no how.

Enjoyed your 'preview'. Mike Bobo will be on the hot seat, come Sunday morning.

Holly said...

I'm sorry, I don't see the word "Sakerlina" anywhere in here.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Aaaaaand somewhere out there a 'Cock fan wonders, once again, why Dawg fans assume they're all obnoxious, mouthy, and cocky (pun not exactly intended) bordering on delusional.

Ollllddude said...

About Brook Taylor and 'speaking swahili': I can say "Mele Kalikimaka", "Joyeux Noel" and "Feliz Navidad", but that doesn't make me multilingual, iywim. At the same time, your pic made Google images for her name. I ended up disappointed, so if you can help a brother out...