This was a strange game. We won 24-10, but if you take away the fluky tip-drill touchdown and we cash in on all three interceptions, then it's 38-3. Of course, if South Carolina gets what should have been a safety call and doesn't get baited into a trap that snapped shut with a Walter Brady INT, it's a whole lot closer at 17-12.
I should start with disclaimers about sample size and control groups: we have one Drew Lock start, one game where receivers consistently caught catchable passes, one game where the OL opened holes, and one game where the RBs ran through them... which also happened to be the one game against a not-very-good South Carolina defense. I'll endeavor to differentiate between the two where I can, but it requires some inherently subjective judgments.
I liked the double tight, double wing, under center formation we showed down by the goal line. (I'll call it the Mammoth Formation, just for FBU.) I particularly like moving Connor McGovern back to guard in that formation. The first time we showed it, it forced South Carolina to burn a time out, and the second time, Ish Witter scored running right over McGovern's block.
One thing I noticed that we didn't seem to consistently exploit was the overlap South Carolina was giving up to the trips side: they seemed content to play two high safeties, keep the linebackers in the box, and only play a CB and NB in shallow coverage to the trips side. This is the sort of thing that OC's usually drool over, but for whatever reason we didn't really seem to attack it as vigorously as I would have expected. Given the same sort of numbers advantage (2 on 1), with about 11:30 to go in the 2nd on their touchdown drive, South Carolina threw the screen three plays in a row to Cooper.
And while there were obviously good reasons for it, it's disappointing to see a drive summary that reads "interception, punt, interception, punt, interception, touchdown." Only cashing in on 1 in 3 turnovers was good enough against South Carolina, but it would be nice to turn more of the defense's performance turned into points.
Offensive Line, H-Backs & Running Backs
I have to run these position groups together, because I'm not sure to whom the credit belongs (and it may well belong to the success of passing game at forcing the defensive backs high and wide). The OL and H-backs opened holes that GP claimed he could have run through (before reconsidering his statement), Hansbrough looked to have some of his acceleration and thump back (except when he was limp-skipping off the field), Witter was finding holes that were hard to miss, and Tyler Hunt continued his campaign for more playing time.
Another thing I noticed was the H-backs and RBs staying in on pass protection, with only 3 receivers running routes. This was reminiscent of what we did in 2013, in (I can only assume) an attempted to protect Franklin. I like this choice to keep Lock's jersey clean, help him build confidence and shift the burden to the receivers to get open against the coverage rather than forcing Lock to hang in a collapsing pocket.
Quarterbacks & Receivers
It probably speaks volumes that as Lock dink-and-dunked his way down the field, I kept thinking to myself, "Mauk doesn't make that throw." Even as the game went on, before the official stats were tallied, his completion percentage felt impressive, and against coverage that wasn't terrible. Upon re-watching the game, even the announcers noticed his ability to look off of his receiver to hold the coverage, before coming back and letting the ball go. I'm not sure I've ever seen Mauk do that. His first TD pass, in particular, with 2 rushers bearing down on him, was particularly impressive.
All that said, he is still a freshman, and still made freshman mistakes. Luckily (and I do chalk it up to luck) he got away with most of them. With about 14:30 to go in the 2nd, on 2nd and goal, he pulled the ball on possibly the worst zone read I've ever seen, and with about 7:15 to go in the 3rd, on 3rd and 8, he threw what in any other reality would have probably been a pick-6, all in addition to heaving a ball up while in contact for what should have been a safety*, a bobbled center-QB exchange on Witter's short TD and needing to dive on a botched QB-RB exchange.
*An interesting note about this play is that the left guard and right tackle very clearly run downfield, but so do all 5 receivers. So there was obviously some confusion on the play call which almost certainly contributed to putting Lock in a bad situation.
His success, however, brings up some ugly questions, for which there are a number of simple explanations:
- The point at which Lock's progress as a QB carried him ahead of Maty Mauk was, is, or will be very close to the present.
- South Carolina, lacking much film on Lock or time to adjust their game plan, stuck with a game plan based around Mauk, some average of Mauk and Lock, or just their generic, base defense. The fact that they insisted on play 2 high safeties leads me to believe that at least one of these is true.
- The success of the running game kept the linebackers up and inside, opening up passes to the outside.
It could, of course, be any or all of these, or some other reasonable explanation, but my point is that there are plenty of reasonable alternatives to "RAWR PINKEL IS TOO LOYAL/WON'T UNSEAT AN INCUMBENT/ETC."
Spurrier is a great offensive mind, Lorenzo Nuñez is a legitimate running threat, and Cooper is a great receiver. Despite any other deficiencies, that's a potent combination. South Carolina consistently utilized a double tight set to spread out the defensive front, and to my surprise, we stayed in our base 4-3 with Cover 2 behind it. On the aforementioned touchdown drive, starting with about 11:30 to go in the 2nd, South Carolina showed the exact same formation and ran a run to Williams and three straight screens to Cooper before inexplicably handing off to Williams on a run that was swallowed by Josh Augusta when a 4th straight screen was probably there and going away from that formation and play combination. We can probably expect to see that again this season.
I felt bad for Nuñez, he was obviously struggling long before he left the game, but the defense in a very legal (aside from Terry Beckner Jr's borderline targeting call) wore him down and punished him for running. That's a great thing to see out of a defense, given how some offenses rely on wearing the defense down until runs start breaking free: effort that, instead, slowly wears down the offense and makes the ball-carrier's wary of contact.
This defensive line has made it somewhat easy to forget that it's missing Marcus Loud and Harold Brantley, and made it somewhat easy to forget that it spent most of the game without Terry Beckner Jr. When I re-watched the defense, I fully expected to see that Walter Brady's success was due to the offense sliding its protection toward Harris, but so far as I could tell, Brady's success of his own making.
Brady's interception was particularly interesting: Mizzou showed a 4-3 cover 2 shell, then brought Michael Scherer and the strong safety (who nearly got to Nuñez), the free safety and corners bailed into a cover 3, and outside linebackers dropped to the outside and Brady dropped to the middle to give a 3 over 3 look. This created a nice little trap, given that Brady dropped from the left end (where Nuñez wouldn't have seen him coming from), right into the space Scherer had just vacated, which is exactly where a quarterback would be looking to go with the ball against the blitz. This was probably made more effective by...
...Scherer's struggles covering the short middle and protecting the seam against play action. This is just great play design to take advantage of an aggressive middle linebacker that specializes in stuffing the run: his first responsibility is to play the run, and stepping up to play the run make it impossible for him to cover the shallow middle and reroute receivers away from the seam between the safeties. What should he do? Read the offensive lines blocks rather than the backfield action, get to his drop and force the receiver go around him and the quarterback to throw over him to get up the seam. Of course, that half-second hesitation could be enough to open up room for the offense in the run game, but that's why Spurrier is a great offensive coach. It's extremely promising to see Coach Odom using some creativity to outcoach the Head Ball Coach.
Cooper is the truth. Aarion Penton's coverage on his 35-yard reception really couldn't have been better (he even turned around and got his hand between the ball and Cooper's body), and his route carried him away from the safety, so Penton was on his own. He's just the kind of player that's going to do that.
Penton had bad luck on South Carolina's TD as well. 99 out of 100 times, knocking that ball down is good enough; that just happened to be the one time it would have made all the difference if he could have hauled it in. Of course, any of our defensive backs that can haul a ball in are getting moved to offense and special teams...
...we have a punt returner, penalty not withstanding. I cringed when Hilton fielded the ball off of the bounce, but were it not for an unnecessary penalty, he would have turned it into the kind of return we were spoiled to see from Marcus Murphy.
This really deserves it's own category. The non-safety on Lock's intentional grounding was mind-boggling, even to those of us in the stadium, and I'm not saying the call on Beckner was a make-up call... but...
The little throwback video about the '65 Tigers beating the Spurrier-led '65 Gators in Sugar Bowl was high-quality trolling, very well done.
After spending the first half laid over in his dad's lap, the kid in front of us unleashed one of the more impressive bits of Exorcist-style projectile vomiting I've ever seen on the two people in front of him. I felt bad for the poor kid, but let that be a lesson: a sick child with a full stomach is functionally a loaded weapon in the hands of someone that hasn't had the requisite experience with intoxication/hangovers to handle it safely.