Recently, Alabama lost its first game since the 2008 Sugar Bowl, and first regular season since the 2007 Iron Bowl. After facing 2 top-10 teams in a row, the Tide had to travel to Columbia to face the No. 19 South Carolina Gamecocks. The Gamecocks are a talented, fast team coached by Steve Spurrier. The Ol’ Ball Coach always seems to have one really surprising win every season, and this was his day.
South Carolina came flying out of the gates, playing fast and aggressive, determined to hit the defending champs in the mouth and really make them work for every inch. The Gamecocks aggression paid off as they were able to establish an early lead, but more importantly, control the tone and tempo of the game.
On the hard, downhill running of Marcus Lattimore and the strength and athleticism of their tall receivers, South Carolina responded with an impressive drive resulting in the game’s first touchdown – a 9-yard slip screen to Lattimore from QB Stephen Garcia, using the Tide’s aggressive scheme to create an open lane to the endzone. South Carolina was able to get a stop and take the ball back down the field to score to establish their hold with a 14-3 1st quarter lead they never relinquished.
Quarterback Stephen Garcia, the oft-criticized QB, played the game of his life. He repeatedly found his big targets on the outside, mostly Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery, who had 7 catches for 127 yards and 2 TDs. Garcia ended up an incredibly efficient 17-20 for 201 yards and 3 TDs. He was steady, avoiding turnovers, and costly mistakes; well, almost avoiding them. He did have 1 interception. Plus, on the Gamecocks opening second-half drive, Garcia went chasing after a snap that sailed over his head towards the endzone. Garcia recovered the ball on the 4… and immediately deciding to throw the ball through the endzone and hit the crossbar of the goal post, resulting in a safety – 2 points for Alabama, plus the ball and the momentum – and left Coach Spurrier scratching his head. The South Carolina fans let out a collective groan and I’m pretty sure Whitesnake’s “Here We Go Again” was playing in the background.
But the South Carolina defense came up big again, holding the Tide to another field goal. This, plus the ‘Bama’s failed fake field goal with the game 28-21, sealed the victory for the Gamecocks.
This was South Carolina’s first ever victory over a No. 1 ranked team.
Two things really stood out to me watching this game: first, the play of QB Greg McElroy and second, the way South Carolina was able to out hustle and be more physical.
Greg McElroy put up pretty good numbers. He ended up throwing for 315 yards and 2 TDs. But something just looked off. He didn’t go all the way through his progressions many times. He looked slow to react to the Gamecocks pressure, often holding the ball far too long which resulted in a sack (7 sacks in total). When his first or second read was open, he delivered the ball confidently and accurately, but he just looked a little slower than normal processing the game. It reminded me a lot of former Auburn QB Brandon Cox, actually. It makes me wonder whether McElroy was totally over his head injury he sustained against the Florida defense last week. It wasn’t considered to be too severe, and he didn’t miss any action last week, but maybe there were some lingering effects.
For Coach Nick Saban, this was a very uncharacteristic performance by one of his teams – especially this team. They looked flat. They made far too many mistakes. They didn’t execute. But most surprisingly, they were pushed around the field. The play-calling, especially in the first half, was gruelingly conservative. Don’t get me wrong, Saban loves to pound it down your throat, but this was different. McElroy didn’t throw the ball further than 10 yards for most of the first half, which allowed the defense to overload the box to stop RBs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. When Ingram and Richardson did run the ball, it seemed like it was either off-tackle right or off-tackle left. There didn’t seem to be any creativity or inspiration behind the play-calling, or the execution. After the game Saban said, “It's not like we just lost. They beat us. They out-executed us. They played better than we played. They played with more intensity. They played physical." Saban is now 1-3 against Spurrier, who, in true Steve Spurrier form, rewarded himself the gameball.
Life in the SEC finally caught up to the mighty Tide. Every week you face a team that is
solid, well-coached (except LSU), fast, and can beat you. And every one of those teams is
targeting the defending champs and giving them their best. An inexperienced defense and facing
their third top 20 team in a row just wore down Alabama. It makes it a lot easy for David to
topple Goliath if Goliath has just finished fighting two other giants. But you still have to execute and compete. South Carolina played a nearly flawless game. Just because Goliath was a little tired, doesn't mean David didn't hit it perfectly with his slingshot.