Regular Season Recap: South Carolina

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South Carolina Gamecocks

Final Record: 10-2 overall, 6-2 SEC

South Carolina’s 2012 season was filled with highs and big lows, from winning 10 games in yet another season to losing their beloved running back Marcus Lattimore, again. Nonetheless, the Gamecocks are rolling out 10-win seasons like Willie Nelson rolls doobies, and the expectation now is to win championships, not just compete for the East.

Exiting 2011’s 11-win season, we knew it would be hard for South Carolina to top that showing, but here they are sitting at 10 wins in early December and have yet another shot to win 11 games. The offense wasn’t all that different numbers-wise from last season, but you have to continue to credit Spurrier for adjusting his offensive philosophy to the strengths of his team. And the defense didn’t miss a beat with new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who took over for Ellis Johnson. Maybe they weren’t better as a unit, but they were more dominant at times, mauling offensive linemen.

Offensively, we knew it would be the Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore show, running the zone read and power plays from under center. Shaw was a winner entering 2011, and he proved he could win without Lattimore, finishing 5-1 in ’11 without him. So, the addition of Lattimore back into the offense would be a major boost. And Shaw picked up right where he left off last season, throwing for 1,732 yards and 15 touchdowns, while rushing for 339 yards and three touchdowns, but he missed time with a shoulder injury and an ankle injury. Backup Dylan Thompson had ice water in his veins, and he merely took the passing game to another level. In two career starts against ECU and Clemson, Thompson threw for 640 yards and six touchdowns. As it stands right now, is there a quarterback controversy brewing in Columbia? The way Thompson dismanted Clemson, you could make a case.

Lattimore started off the year looking like he lost a step, and returning from an ACL injury will make you do that. He just didn’t look like he had the burst or power he possessed in ’11 before his injury, but it started to get better around game five against Kentucky. Then, the unthinkable happened, again. This time, the injury was worse, and I know for me it clouded an entire month of college football. Lattimore finished the season – and perhaps his college career – with 662 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. Backups Kenny Miles and Mike Davis did a nice job filling in after the Tennessee game. Miles finished with 358 yards and two touchdowns, while Davis finished with 275 yards and two touchdowns.

The biggest question I had about this offense entering 2012 wasn’t about Shaw or the return of Lattimore, but it revolved around the receivers. Now Alshon Jeffery-less, who would emerge as Shaw’s go-to receiver in the clutch? Leave it to the starting point guard Bruce Ellington. Ellington led the team in receptions, and he and Ace Sanders each caught more than 35 passes and combined for 1,003 yards and 13 touchdowns. They didn’t look like Jeffery and didn’t play like him, but their combined production made the offense flow without Jeffery in the lineup. Damiere Byrd, Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson also finished in double figures in catches.

But make no mistake about it, South Carolina won with defense. Finishing only behind Alabama, LSU and Florida, the Gamecocks’ defense didn’t miss a beat with Ward now calling the plays for the departed Johnson. Led by the freak of nature Jadeveon Clowney, who I think is the most gifted and most dominant defensive player in the country, the Gamecocks’ success started up front. The defensive line dominated and overwhelmed teams and led the SEC with 40 total sacks, good for sixth best in the entire country. Clowney, Chaz Sutton, and Devin Taylor, among others, combined to form the most dominant defensive lines in the country. Linebacker Shaq Wilson led the team in tackles with 77 total and also notched 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Safety DJ Swearinger hit like a Mack truck, and offensive players knew where he was on every play. SPUR Devonte Holloman also recorded 7.0 tackles for loss and two sacks. The vacated and inexperienced secondary benefited from such a massive and disruptive defensive line.

Overall, could there have been a better ending to the 2012 season than to beat the hell out of Clemson again? Do you think that Spurrier enjoyed the Clemson win or the Georgia win more? It’s just what South Carolina does: inflict pain and stomp Clemson. And South Carolina did it in remarkable style with a backup quarterback, a backup running back and a point guard at wide receiver. Was there a bigger indictment on the ACC than that?

Offensive MVP: Wouldn’t it just be boring of me to pick Connor Shaw for the offensive MVP because he’s the quarterback? I’m going to throw in a wildcard and say Bruce Ellington was this offense’s best player. I know the heartbeat belongs to Lattimore, but the Gamecocks beat Arkansas, Wofford and Clemson without him in the lineup. Besides, Lattimore only tallied three one-hundred-yard games on the season. Ellington, on the other hand, led the entire team in all-purpose yardage. He led the team in receptions (38), yards (564) and second in touchdowns (6). In addition, Ellington also returned kicks for a total of 355 yards. He nearly topped 1,000 total yards on the season with 947. It’s an off-the-wall corner pocket pick, but I thought Ellington deserved it just as much as anyone else.

Defensive Freak Show: How about the best defensive player in the country? Jadeveon Clowney fits that mold. Clowney led the SEC and the country in sacks with 13, and he finished second in the SEC and the country in tackles for loss with 21.5. He did it all while having an injured foot, being at 85 percent, at best. Some SEC coaches have said that Clowney is the best defensive lineman they’ve seen, ever. Think about that. Clowney coming back for another year of college football is like Shaq playing on eight-foot rims – totally unfair.

Where To Next: South Carolina travels to Tampa, Florida, to take on the formerly awesome Michigan Wolverines. It will be Denard Robinson’s final game, and what a better way to end his career than running for his life against Jadeveon Clowney? Have fun, Denard. With Connor Shaw’s ankle injury, Dylan Thompson will have a chance to become 3-0 as a starter.

Photo Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

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