I really don't know were to begin as I sit down to write this column. I think the whole Gamecock Nation is in a collective state of shock. Not because they didn't expect the 33-16 loss to Arkansas, maybe more because unfortunately they did. Now I agree, that is a terrible attitude or feeling to take into a contest. Nevertheless the feeling was apparent all week on the message boards, air waves and local and national media. Understand none of the aforementioned matters in the grand scheme of things. What matters is that this Carolina football team believes it can not only compete but win consistently in the SEC. I am not convinced yet that they believe they can. You must understand that it is very difficult to fight the perception that you will always be a middle of the road SEC team. I can't even remember the last time Carolina has been picked above 4th place in the SEC East? The problem is that most programs have peaks and valleys. Carolina has had it's undue share of valleys in it's history. For all the claims that this is a "New Carolina", and it very well may be the beginning of just that, the fact remains that we are left with the same results. The question is why?
Before I get into Saturday's game let me give you a philosophy as to why.
Scheduling: I don't confess to know how much sway the Athletic Director or Staff has in this matter. What I do know is that the current layout is not conducive to winning. Pundits say that Carolina's late season swoons are the result of a schedule front loaded with less competitive games. With the exception of the Georgia Bulldogs I will have to agree. When you consistently have Vandy, Kentucky, two FBS teams and a mid-level non-conference opponent at the beginning of your schedule you are setting yourself up for trouble. Not to mention that your bye week is worthlessly scheduled before the last game of the season. Recently the only thing that bye week has been successful in doing has been stalling any of Carolina's momentum to that point. Speaking of the last game of the season. I am on-board to have the Clemson game moved to the first game of the season, or just within the first quarter of the schedule. This has nothing to do with the series results and everything to do with the hyper competitive nature of the SEC. Our main focus going into conference play should be squarely on the SEC gauntlet in front of us. Anything other than a possible late season FBS opponent is a distraction in my opinion. Think about it from the flip side. Should Clemson win the rest of it's ACC games and lose to Carolina at seasons end you have the very good possibility of an ACC Champion with 4 losses. Conference Champion or not I wouldn't blame the BCS for not inviting them to a New Year Day BCS Bowl. Who wants to see a 4 loss team in a BCS Bowl? The good from moving that game outweighs the downside in my opinion.
Recruiting: This is an area of improvement with the Gamecocks but has to get better. First, you must get the best in the state to come to your program. Second, you must do a better job in your national recruiting efforts. Although Carolina has made inroads in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, their efforts in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Southwest and West are severely lacking. If you can get in a recruits house you have a chance! Recruiting has come a long way at Carolina but must continue to improve to keep pace with the elite in the SEC.
I think the above are two very important factors in a group of complex issues facing the Gamecocks. I'll save other factors for another day and column.
Let's get to the game:
Big plays, untimely turnovers and lack of overall intensity can create a sure fire recipe for a loss. We've had our share of all those ingredients in Saturday's defeat.
Once again the numbers on the surface don't reflect the lopsided outcome of the game. It's the intangibles that continue to trip up the 'Cocks. Total offensive yards are a wash (405-380.) Same goes for first downs (17-17), net yards rushing (76-53) and net yards passing (329-327.) So where is the difference? Arkansas got the big plays when they needed them!
Offensively, we can't get it done in the red zone. It is very perplexing. Not only were we not successful executing our plays, we had the time of our lives just getting them called! I dare someone to say it was because of the crowd noise. Listen, this is not our first time around the block. We understand what the noise level is going to be like at every SEC venue. These scenarios are covered in practice and measures are implemented including silent counts, play signals and multiple play calls. It is a simple matter of execution.
Stephen Garcia was 20-34 for 327 yards, with 1 big interception. There were many other factors but that one interception shifted the momentum of the game. With the scored tied 17-17 in the 3rd, Garcia throws an interception in the end zone that denies us a scoring opportunity. We are simply not a team that can throw away scoring opportunities. Granted, Garcia was rushed on his throws throughout the afternoon. You must credit Arkansas' persistent pressure and our lack of offensive line protection for many of Stephen's problems. On the flip side his counterpart Ryan Mallett had one of his career days from a percentage standpoint going 23-27 for 329 yards. He did a great job of taking exactly what we gave him. He recognized early that we weren't going to make an adjustment for his tight end D.J. Smith and to his credit he took advantage of that fact. Other then that he was satisfied with controlling the game with a balance of underneath routes and short runs. Almost half his passing yards were YAC (yards after catch.)
From a receiving standpoint we remained consistent although not spectacular. Alshon Jeffery seems to be here to stay. He had another 100 yard day although he tallied only 5 receptions. Moe Brown started of with a bang but ended with a whimper. Moe started out with a 25 yard reverse and two catches in the 2nd Quarter but did not record another reception until the 4th quarter, he finished with 3 catches for 55 yards. Jason Barnes had two nice drive extending catches and we finally got the tight end Weslye Saunders back involved in the offense. I believe our passing offense is going to continue to struggle until we can consistently stretch the field like we did at the beginning of the 2nd half with a Garcia to Jeffery 80 yard connection.
What do we say about the running game? Well we can say we have seen worse. Arkansas was able to scrape out 104 yards against a very stout and experienced Hogs front four. The rushing attempts were just not enough to garner the type of ground production needed. We got a combined 25 rushing attempts. Many SEC backs get 25 individual attempts. So we are not close to getting the production we need quite yet. Kenny Miles was our lead back going 8 rushes for 35 yards. There was nothing else of note from our backfield. Once again we got a DNP/CD (Did not perform/play, coaches decision) on Jarvis Giles. I just hope this kid doesn't get disillusioned and pack his bags.
The defense struggled on Saturday. I have to believe it is a depth issue rather than a talent deficit. Recently we have had problems containing the run. Surprisingly, we were not half bad in that area yesterday. Arkansas was able to pound out 111 yards on the ground, but they only produced two runs over 10 yards. It was the pass defense that let us down yesterday. Arkansas had three passing plays of 39 yards or more for 154 yards. That combined with the fact that we gave up 175 yards in underneath routes explains it all.
A combination of missed tackles and bad angles resulted in too many yards after the catch. This was a major factor to consider. Shaq Wilson led the way with 11 tackles. Once again Eric Norwood was consistent with 8 tackles, 2 for loss and 1 sack. Again, the defense was unable to produce any turnovers. We did drop a potential interception. I have noticed we do not hit people with "bad intentions" that cause turnovers. That's a matter of intensity that will have to be addressed. We don't seem to possess the fire in our bellies to be successful up to this point. Our passion bucket is just about empty. We are going to need to go to the well if we don't want a disastrous end to this season.
I know everyone would like to forget this game and move on to next week. Be careful what you wish for. Next weeks opponent is the mighty Florida Gators. They are #1 in the land. They are the undefeated, undisputed, heavyweight champion of college football. Their place is secured in the SEC Championship Game. They will say all the right things this week about how they are not overlooking the Gamecocks. However, they will come to Columbia with little or no respect for the 'Cocks as players. Do we have a little Buster Douglas in us? Can we be a spoiler with national ramifications? We've got everything to win, they have everything to lose. I've seen stranger things happen. GO CAROLINA, BEAT THE GATORS'!!!!