Even in a Loss, Point Proven: We Belong

I called my dad at half-time and before I could utter a word, he said, “We aren’t up enough for me to feel comfortable.”

And, as we all found out in the second half of the game against Georgia, he was right.

His skepticism is one based in experience. My dad has been a Carolina fan since the late 70’s. He’s seen it all. Personally, I was ready to celebrate early. I knew that we COULD fall apart in the 3rd and 4th quarter; I even knew deep down it was probably very likely… but I didn’t want to believe what my guy was telling me. I don’t say that to sound like a pessimistic fan. In fact, many would argue that I’m too optimistic for my own good— I’ve even been called a “sunshine pumper” for not wanting to give up on our student athletes no matter what goes down— but knowing that Georgia was defending national champions, riding a 19-game winning streak and holding the consensus number one national ranking, reminded me that those things don’t happen by accident.

Georgia is good. It takes a great team, with great coaches, finding some good luck along the way to win 1 national championship. To win 2-in-a-row though is something else entirely. It takes ELITE coaching, ELITE playmaking, and a special IT FACTOR that cannot be ignored. UGA has proven all that, and the look poised to make a run at 3-peat. Despite this, and my immediate mental hesitation, I knew that eventually, great teams fall short, especially when going against early adversity and a Quarterback like Spencer Rattler who can make them pay for complacency. But, my dad’s response snapped me out of it and reminded me who Georgia was, and how quickly things can swing the other way.

Competency, Pride, and Proving We Belong

Before the change of momentum though, the Gamecocks did something that deserves to be commended. They represented us as well as I’ve seen, on par with some of the greatest games in our history. No, we are not loaded with talent at every position like those 11-win teams of yesteryear, but that almost adds a special touch to how incredible the first half performance was. I think about that legendary game against Bama at home and even the game against Tennessee last year— for one half yesterday, we showed a similar mindset, and that mental aspect of confidence and pride far exceeded our talent level and almost led to what some might would have considered the biggest win in program history. For 2 quarters we were the better team and our guys showed that we, as the team that were unanimously projected to get absolutely DESTROYED on the road, did, in fact, belong on the biggest stage. And for that, I’m proud.

The problem with the UNC game was that we didn’t represent ourselves well. Spencer carried Carolina on his back (not just the team, but the entire fanbase) but outside of his incredible individual effort, the team as a whole showed very little pride, morale, or competency. A competent loss may not be acceptable overall, but in the grand scheme of the future of the program, it is an easier pill to swallow.

In Charlotte though, with all the offseason momentum in the world, we looked unprepared and truly mediocre. The score was much closer than the game felt. Those of us who watched every snap can attest that we should have lost by a lot more. We also can openly admit that UNC was not an elite team (outside of a few superstar guys, no one on their roster would start if they played for Georgia), which makes the loss hurt all the more. It was one that we gave away, but as we saw last night, I think that painful eye-opening ass-whipping in Charlotte, was a catalyst for change. And that change led to a first half to be proud of, and an overall game that saw the (as some media members claimed) “Under talented and undersized” Gamecocks crush the spread and hang around with a team that might very well win their 3rd straight championship.

I’m proud of that. I’m not happy with the outcome, and I put a middle finger up to moral victories, but growth is growth. There’s a lesson in loss and like the late great Kobe Bryant said, “Everything negative— pressures, challenges; it’s all an opportunity for me to rise.” And this team has that opportunity in front of them now, as a result of a loss that many see as only negative— these guys can either seize the opportunity and rise, or close the casket on the season for good; there’s no middle ground.

I believe that Coach Beamer will be the first to echo that sentiment. He’s proud of the effort just like I’m proud of the fight, but he’s not satisfied with the outcome, and neither is Spencer Rattler, or XL, or Debo Williams. Winning is all that matters to these guys, and maybe elsewhere, on other teams, there’s players that care more about individual accolades, but in the words of Debo Williams (who had some of the best individual defensive stats in recent memory), “My tackles don’t matter if we don’t win. We gave up 21 unanswered points in the 3rd qtr. Have to be better there … ” That’s a player that gets it.

From what we’ve seen so far, it appears that the team understands the truth of yesterday: they dropped a chance to shock the world, but through that loss came the lesson: use that performance to grow stronger and become better.

As a fan, I see the value of what this game revealed about this team and their potential. When you face adversity, and are told all week (and all offseason) that you don’t belong on the same field as the team you are about to play, and you still, despite the talent gap and position deficiencies, prove that you belong, that’s huge for momentum, huge for recruiting, huge for player confidence, and huge for fan morale.

Now, like Kobe said, you have to seize the opportunity and rise.

What Happens from Here?

Consider this… how many of us really thought after the UNC game that we might struggle to win more than 2 or 3 games this season? How many thought Furman might kick our ass? How many thought that with the Offensive Line issues we’d give up 30 sacks against Georgia, see Spencer get hurt, and get beat by 40? (I admit, I was hopeful that the line would turnaround, but wasn’t expecting the much improved blocking that came yesterday). But now, after this gutsy performance, how has the perception changed?

Looking ahead, there’s not a single team on our schedule that our guys will fear (and they sure as hell didn’t fear Georgia). No one that we will play even begins to compare to Georgia, and none of them will out-talent us the way that they did. We might lose games, the way that we lost to UNC, but we are not automatically counted out of any of these. We can win them all, and if there’s adjustments made when the flow of the game calls for it, improvements in the running game, and some guys can get and stay healthy, I’d bet on us against anyone else we play. I’ll even say this: barring injuries, I think we will win-out. We can’t control who is hurt and who is not. We can’t control the bad luck with injuries that seems to plague this team, but if health can be maintained, give me the Cocks to finish 10-2. If we can’t stay healthy though, Tennessee, Florida, and A&M become tough.

The Second Half

The second half was tough to watch. I know some have argued that we simply were out-classed in every position outside of QB, but I’m not sure that is the only reason things started to crumble. It seems that Georgia adjusted during halftime and Carolina chose to stay the course. I don’t think that’s wrong— why would you change what you were doing that was successful? But, when you are competing against a team that is flooded with 4 and 5 star players, minor adjustments on their end can lead to big outcomes. We were beating them in ways that caught them off-guard and once they realized it, all they had to do was make some small changes in scheme to exploit the talent-gap. When this happened, we got hit in the mouth with a haymaker that puts us on the mat. We did get back up, but we were dazed and never the same. I don’t know if coaching is fully to blame, but when we were bleeding momentum like a tire with a hole in it, instead of making adjustments to counter the attack of Georgia’s second half approach (or even patch the holes to slow the bleeding), we seemed complacent for the first time and looked completely lost, hanging on to the lead for dear life.

I personally think that it was a mixture of coaching and execution, but no matter how you look at it, when you have 18-22 year-olds who are fighting to overachieve against an opponent that is simply better on every level, coaching becomes the difference maker. You can’t blame the kids for failing to overcome the onslaught of a better team if coaching didn’t find ways to help promote their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. At the end of the day, yes, a player has to make a play (missed tackles, dumb penalties, and dropped balls contributed) but a team that leads at the half and then fails to score the rest of the game tells me that either the coaching staff failed to adjust to what was happening OR the adjustments they made were ineffective.

The Rest of this Season: Strengths and Weaknesses

Overall, I don’t feel bad about this. We played well, we showed pride, we represented the school, our state, and our fans well, and we made a marked improvement from game-one.

I expect next week to be a coming-out party for this offense. I think they shows the full potential they have against Hail State and displays on every level that the Georgia game led to massive growth. With a much improved offensive line (that should have a boost in confidence now that they held back Georgia the way that they did), Spencer will have the time for plays to develop so that he can truly ball-out at home. If more receivers than just XL can prove that they are sure-handed, Spencer might set a single game passing record, especially against a defense that appears to be suspect at best.

Since Rattler’s arm and our receivers are the strength of the team, I except to see creative packages that allows Rattler to settle in and just sling the damn thing. If I’m right, get ready for a fun one under the lights.

The biggest concern remains though (and something the has hindered Rattler’s ability to run play-action)— where is the running game? Is it a player issue? A scheme issue? Or a blocking issue? Here’s where I prove I’m not a Sunshine Pumper and give you my honest critique… The blocking has been much better— our issue right now is running back depth and simply poor play. At times, each RB has shown flashes, but the consistency in making cuts, seeing holes, and making an impact in the run game has been a weakness that has hurt every facet of the offense.

In game one, the offensive line hid this sore spot by attracting the negative attention and by allowing the backs to get stood up at the line, but now that they are improving, the weakness that is the RB room is becoming obvious. There’s no more hiding the only position group to show no improvement this season And opposing defenses are taking notice, showing no respect for the run game at all.

What can be done? I don’t know. I’ve never claimed to be an expert, and I certainly don’t want to be a couch coachI know bourbon, I know history, and I know literature— but I don’t know coaching. However, I do know when something is off, and I know that there’s issues with this running game. Joyner should have never had to step into the role of RB, just like Bell should have never had to play RB last year. I believe Joyner (much like Bell, before he betrayed us) is one of the best athletes on the team, but the fact that we didn’t have an obvious go-to “natural running back” pre-season is becoming more interesting to me as the season goes along. It’s starting to suggest a coaching issue. But, ignoring that for the time being, I think Joyner HAS proved a natural ability, however, his playmaking talent show up best when he’s in space. Finding holes and breaking tackles at the line of scrimmage is completely different, and something I think he would need more time to learn. The problem is, we don’t have time for him to learn this, not with us diving into the deep-end of conference play. Because of this, if I were making decisions, I’d lean toward using the young talent of Mario Anderson, and use Joyner for jet sweeps, wildcat play (with him actually passing), and tossing out to him as a way of getting him out in space where his talent can best show.

Anderson has proven himself as a guy who runs hard, loves contact, and powers through tackles. Mike Davis, arguably the best running back behind Lattimore in the Spurrier era, said, “24 at RB for SC runs hard . Give him more opps please.”

It’s hard to argue with a legend like Davis, so maybe, If I’m Loggains, I’d give Mario the start this weekend and see what happens.

The Future is BRIGHT

No matter what happens this season, the future is bright. Our freshmen on the line (plus the recruits coming in) show talent and promise. Our young receivers are already proving that they have the ability to make big plays, and will serve as great replacements for XL and Juice. Our D-Line is slowly adjusting, but have shown flashes of being great, and our linebackers are proving that they are the strength of the defense and that next season they will be absolutely elite. Besides this, we all know about the Garnet Superman-in-glasses who is ready to take the world by storm next season.

We may not be there yet, but things are looking really good for the next few seasons and for the first time in a decade, I think we are about to enter a new era of Carolina Football.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” my dad said after the game.

“They had it. The guys will take this loss harder than the fans will. You can’t be so close to shocking the world and then come up just short and not feel the pain of it. But, I think they grow from this loss in ways that even a win couldn’t have allowed.”

Sometimes my dad is the smartest guy I know. This is a prime example. I totally agree with him. Do you?

Go Cocks!

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