COLUMBIA — When you finish 10-2 for the second consecutive regular season and have a chance, in your bowl game, to cap the greatest three-season run in program history with a 31-9 record, you definitely have more things going right than wrong.
That’s the case for South Carolina as it prepares for the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Michigan in Tampa, Fla. The Gamecocks are riding high, having just won four consecutive games over rival Clemson for the second time ever, and first time since 1951-54. If they beat Michigan, they will tie last season’s program-best 11-2 record. Regardless of what happens in the bowl game, no USC fan will soon forget the group of players that came through Columbia from 2010-12.
But every season has its share of ups and downs, and here are three things that went right for USC in 2012 and three that went wrong …
WHAT WENT RIGHT
1 – Defensive line play
As Lorenzo Ward prepared for his first season as USC’s defensive coordinator, he said he wanted to blitz with more than just his front four linemen – a change from the favored approach of his predecessor, Ellis Johnson. But because the Gamecocks’ defensive line was so effective pressuring quarterbacks, Ward rarely needed to bring other pass rushers.
The Gamecocks rank sixth nationally with 40 sacks, nine more than they had last year. USC’s defensive line was responsible for 32 of those 40, including a school-record 13 by end Jadeveon Clowney, who had 4½ against Clemson.
2 – Dylan Thompson’s growth
He looked skittish when he had to replace an injured Connor Shaw in the season opener at Vanderbilt. At that point, it was difficult to imagine Thompson winning one of the biggest games in USC history. But that’s exactly what he did, at Clemson, when he threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, as Shaw sat out with a sprained left foot.
Thompson isn’t a statue, but he’s not as shifty as Shaw. Still, he looked comfortable and decisive in the pocket at Clemson. Even if Shaw’s foot is healed by the bowl game, as it should be, coach Steve Spurrier expects both quarterbacks to play – a testament to Thompson’s progress.
3 – Bruce Ellington
Everybody knew Ellington was an excellent athlete, but many observers wondered before the season if he could prove himself as an every-down Southeastern Conference wide receiver.
He did just that, catching 38 passes for 564 yards (both team highs) and six touchdowns.
He came on strong late in the season (six catches for 101 yards against Tennessee, five for 104 the next week against Arkansas) after he was moved from slot receiver to outside receiver.
He said he hasn’t decided if he will play football next season. After the way he performed this season, the answer to that question seems like a no-brainer.
WHAT WENT WRONG
1 – Marcus Lattimore’s injury
The Tennessee game on Oct. 27 will be remembered as one of the most somber moments in USC history. Lattimore, among the program’s most beloved and successful players ever, crumpled to the grass with multiple ligament tears in his right knee, after taking a blow directly to the knee.
Whether Lattimore plays another game for USC remains to be seen. Before the injury, he was considered a likely candidate to turn pro, and that still might be the best option for him.
2 – Offensive line play
Even though Lattimore averaged 73.6 yards in his nine games, USC ranked No. 86 nationally with 142.9 rushing yards per game as a team, compared to 192.1 last season. USC allowed 35 sacks – No. 109 of 124 teams in the country. That’s five more than USC allowed last season.
The line got dealt a tough blow with tackle Mike Matulis’ season-ending shoulder injury, and had to weather the inevitable struggles that came with redshirt freshman Brandon Shell’s inexperience. But there is no doubt this was a down year for coach Shawn Elliott’s group.
3 – Explosive offense in big spots
USC’s offense didn’t show up in its two losses, at LSU and at Florida. Granted, those are the two best defenses the Gamecocks played all season. But the Gamecocks managed just 211 yards at LSU and 191 at Florida, as Shaw was benched at halftime.
USC’s defense gave up 406 yards to LSU, but held the Tigers to 23 points. Florida hung 44 points on USC, but USC limited the Gators to 183 yards. The Gamecocks’ defense played well enough for them to win both of those games, but because the offense didn’t, USC fell short of having a truly magical season.