In what was a fine offensive performance in Auburn, Alabama Saturday night, the South Carolina Gamecocks proved that they aren't there yet.
The question that was posed though is, are they even close? Can the Gamecocks right the ship in two weeks when the defending national champions roll into town?
Can a ship even be righted when it doesn't have a captain?
Steve Spurrier again displayed his inability to stick with Stephen Garcia. Garcia through the air was 15-21, for 235 yards and three touchdowns. His targets were there, though, just like in the previous years the offensive line was nowhere to be found when it counted.
Plays that were made came from determination. Auburn shut down the Gamecock rushing attack, and tried to force Garcia to beat them with his arm, which was the key for the Gamecocks against Cam Newton. Garcia was in the process of doing so until the fourth quarter, when the offensive line disappeared.
Garcia broke tackles and fought for yardage, only to receive a crushing blow to the helmet, causing his first fumble of the evening. Garcia has long had a history of fumbles, and those usually come when he's fighting for extra yards. Garcia returned to the game following the first fumble, only to be harassed again and have the ball stripped from his hands by two Auburn defenders.
Steve Spurrier saw all he needed to see. The coach with the notoriously short leash yanked it and put in true freshman Connor Shaw to replace Garcia, in a pressure-packed situation.
Shaw responded by completing four of eight passes for 70 yards, and getting intercepted twice. His other two incomplete passes were missed wheel routes to an open Marcus Lattimore.
The first interception had "true freshman" written all over it. Shaw is said to be the future of the Gamecocks, and rightfully so. He plays the game with a natural ability, and almost a grace that doesn't come along often. However, he's a true freshman thrown to the wolves, or tigers as it were, in the midst of 87,237 raucous fans.
Shaw's first interception was a lob over the middle, intended for tight end Patrick DiMarco that Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes caught on the 11-yard line. Bynes simply dropped back into coverage as soon as the ball was snapped and didn't have to move far. A mistake like that usually means you're coming out of the game when Steve Spurrier is calling the shots, but not this time.
Shaw came back into the game as Garcia stood on the sideline, helmet on and ready. Shaw again led the team down the field and with a little over 30 seconds remaining lofted a pass to Alshon Jeffery in triple coverage that Jeffery had a chance for, but with too many defensive bodies around, fell into the waiting hands of Auburn corner Demond Washington and ended any hopes the Gamecocks had of a comeback.
Spurrier's postgame comments are leading many to believe, some would say again, that Garcia's days are numbered and the reins may be handed to the true freshman Shaw sooner rather than later.
Spurrier commented that Shaw played well, and must get a look. As long as Alshon Jeffery continues to shine, and Tori Gurley plays like he did against Auburn, the quarterback, whoever it may be, will only have to worry about shoddy line play.
Ellis Johnson's defense again looked less than ideal in a big game situation. During the ESPN broadcast Todd Blackledge mentioned that Johnson himself said his defensive unit's stats were misleading, as far as being a top rush defense in the country. Ellis Johnson was right. The Gamecocks began to miss tackles, and not crowd the box, which was key for the Gamecocks to have a chance.
The Gamecocks slip to 3-1 on the year, and 1-1 in SEC play. The SEC East is still a wide-open race, and Gamecock fans need not abandon ship. An aerial display from either quarterback will keep the Gamecocks in many a game, and not many more teams (with the exception of Alabama) have a running attack quite that deadly.
This is still a talent-laden roster, for which the off week couldn't have come at a better time. A physical and heartbreaking loss to Auburn only days after three tragedies had befallen the Gamecocks and their fans.
Senior offensive guard Garrett Chisolm lost his father on Wednesday, September 15. Junior cornerback C.C. Whitlock lost his brother Sunday, September 19, and former Gamecock Kenny McKinley passed on September 20.
The Gamecocks host the Crimson Tide of Alabama in two weeks in Columbia. Alabama pulled off a comeback win against Arkansas this Saturday, and on the Gamecocks off week the Tide host the resurgent Gators, before making the trip to Columbia to play the Gamecocks in a rather hostile environment inside Williams Brice Stadium.
My sincerest condolences go to the family of Garrett Chisolm, C.C. Whitlock, and Kenny McKinley.