COLUMBIA -- It's one game after the mathematical season midpoint, but the actual midpoint of South Carolina's football season was last week at North Carolina.
The game, a 21-15 too-close victory, brought a solid stretch to a close and vaulted the Gamecocks to heights they haven't reached in 23 years. Coming into Saturday's game hosting Vanderbilt, USC is sixth in the nation in the polls and the BCS standings.
Now the Gamecocks' focus turns to their last five games, which begins with a supposed match to work out any remaining kinks before the real stretch run starts. The team thought at the beginning of the season that the UNC game would give them an idea of where they stood in their national aspirations, before picking up the conference trail again.
USC stands 6-1, 3-1 in the SEC, with a half-game lead in the SEC East and a long way to go before it can really begin concentrating on coach Steve Spurrier's preseason declaration -- having enough talent to play for the SEC championship. The Gamecocks are in good position, but know, especially after a second-half meltdown against the Tar Heels, the season can easily change course.
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• Offense: RB Mike Davis
Every time the Gamecocks need a big first down, there's Davis. His stubborn refusal to hit the ground when he's got the ball has been the one consistent spot of USC's offense.
Davis will never have the physical gifts and speed of his tandem-mate, Cory Boyd. But while Boyd usually starts and can get the big game-breaking runs, Davis is the one who just finds a hole. Look no further than the 38-21 win over Mississippi State, when Boyd went down on the game's first play.
Davis stepped in, playing on a bruised thigh, and scored three touchdowns. The last showed his toughness, when he took a helmet-losing shot as he crossed the goal line and somersaulted, braids flying, to his feet while pointing to the gleeful crowd.
Runners-up: Boyd is the heart of the team, the Gamecocks' vocal leader and the glue of the offense. His season hasn't been as good as he would have liked, only breaking 100 yards once (against S.C. State) and being slowed by a knee injury over the last three games. His best contribution, though, is speaking up -- this team listens to him. WR Kenny McKinley is the team's most constant receiver and has patiently worked with three different quarterbacks. He hasn't let it bother him, posting 63.7 yards per game and catching a touchdown in five of seven games.
• Defense: DE Eric Norwood
No one would ever say losing linebacker Jasper Brinkley didn't hurt the team, but Norwood's presence is at least making Brinkley's absence not so bad. The sophomore, warming to his role as a charging pass-rusher, is second on the team with 41 tackles and has five sacks, three pass breakups and five hurries.
His biggest contribution, though, came against Mississippi State and Kentucky, coincidentally the two games immediately after Brinkley was lost. Norwood blocked a punt against the Bulldogs that helped wipe out a third-quarter deficit and his epic performance against the Wildcats (two recovered fumbles run back for touchdowns, one after USC had just given away seven points) lifted the entire team.
Then there's his character, on display across the nation after the Kentucky win. While being interviewed live on ESPN, Norwood broke off a sentence and turned his back on the camera. The reason -- USC's band was playing the alma mater and Norwood wanted to pay his respects.
Runners-up: SS Emanuel Cook missed the season-opener after having his appendix removed and has come back to lead the team with 46 tackles, chipping in two sacks and two interceptions. Spurrier credited Cook as probably the team's strongest player pound-for-pound, and with Norwood running from the opposite side, has been the main reason USC can keep pressure on quarterbacks. CB Captain Munnerlyn has weathered severe injuries to the secondary, the only starter who's gotten through seven games unscathed. He has 30 tackles and tied Cook with two interceptions, including one of Kentucky's Andre Woodson on the goal line.
• Good: Norwood charged through the line to block an MSU punt, the Gamecocks scored on the next play and never looked back, wiping out a 21-17 Bulldogs lead. Not only a big play for USC's beleaguered special teams, but it came days after Brinkley was shelved for the season.
• Bad: Boyd and Davis were dinged up in the same game, Boyd falling on the first play and Davis bruising his thigh later on. The two returned and have played in the two games since, but the running game hasn't been as solid as it once was, and the offensive line can't take all the blame.
THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE
As glorious as the Gamecocks' start has been, there were a few preseason pundits who thought USC would be no worse than 5-2 at this point. They pointed out USC would most likely lose at LSU and picked the Gamecocks over Kentucky, although it's doubtful they thought the Wildcats would be as good as they are. The only questionable game was Georgia, which was a toss-up.
Aside from the win-loss record, the offense has been disappointing but doing enough to win, and the defense can't stop the run but has been excellent against the pass and in the red zone. Special teams are about what they were thought to be -- Ryan Succop's reliable, although not as automatic as he was last year, and the return game's still seeking a key block.
BUT NEVER SAW THIS COMING
Who knew that Blake Mitchell would have appeared to run out his last chance? Most figured he'd be on the bench at some point -- and his opening one-game suspension followed by a great showing at Georgia looked like this year's example -- but this much is surprising. Spurrier said Mitchell may get another shot this week against Vanderbilt, but was adamant that Smelley was still the starter.
Even with Smelley under center, the passing game has struggled. Weak guard play and the struggling running game has been some of it, but it's still curious the Gamecocks haven't found the answer to spring Spurrier's downfield attack.
FIVE TO WATCH
TE Jared Cook: He's mostly holding onto the ball and has become a reliable target, with 15 grabs for 256 yards and a touchdown. Blessed with receiver speed and a pass-blocking body, Cook may become the Gamecocks' best goal-line option.
TE Weslye Saunders: A physical specimen with suprising speed, Saunders has been getting early looks. He'd be getting more without his goal-line fumble against Kentucky, but Saunders should see more action in the coming weeks with starter Andy Boyd again on the mend.
WR Dion Lecorn: Spurrier elevated the freshman after Lecorn was performing his off-the-ball plays better than the other multiple heads in USC's receiving corps. He caught his first touchdown against North Carolina and has six grabs for 45 yards for the year.
DT Ladi Ajiboye: A beefy but muscular lineman with good speed, Ajiboye has been rising up the charts with several pressures and/or sacks. He's got 24 tackles and three sacks and made UNC quarterback T.J. Yates his personal punching bag.
LB Cliff Matthews: He was expected to challenge at defensive end but was too good of an athlete to leave off the field. He's played linebacker the past few games and has 16 tackles and a blocked punt, despite playing with a cast on one hand.
WHICH FORK IN THE ROAD WILL USC TAKE?
• Worst-case scenario: The Gamecocks struggle to put away lowly Vanderbilt and head to Tennessee, where the Vols take out their frustrations from two years ago. Arkansas' Darren McFadden rushes for 250 yards, Florida's Tim Tebow cements the Heisman Trophy with a 600-yard day and USC, out of the SEC title race, finishes an epic slide with a home loss to Clemson. They'll still go to a mid-level bowl but nobody will feel much like celebrating, win or lose.
• Middle ground: USC beats Vandy comfortably and splits the final four games, just missing the SEC East title when Florida wins the clinching game on Nov. 10. After beating Clemson, the Gamecocks finish with nine wins for just the third time in school history, go to a New Year's Day bowl and Spurrier mentions the finish is a tad disappointing, but hey, a young team is returning next year and the Gamecocks fully expect to be in the SEC championship.
• Best-case scenario: The Gamecocks run the table, steamrolling Vanderbilt, squeaking past Tennessee, surprisingly stopping McFadden in a rousing win and then coming home to face the Gators. USC beats Florida on a last-second touchdown before blasting Clemson and rolls to Atlanta for the SEC championship. What happens after that would only be in the Gamecocks' wildest fantasies, so let's keep them there.
• USC midseason report card • 4C