The Daily Gamecock

Report Card: Grading the Gamecocks through the regular season

Offense have made significant strides over last four games

Fourteenth-ranked South Carolina has completed its regular season after a 34-13 victory over rival Clemson on Saturday. Sports Editor James Kratch offers his grades for the Gamecocks to date.

In the last four games, USC has been held to only two offensive touchdowns once. It doesn't sound like much of a statistic, but given the struggles the Gamecocks had been having on offense, it's a significant improvement. Two of the defenses USC has faced over the last four weeks — Clemson and The Citadel — weren't exactly tough matchups, but Carolina has nonetheless found offensive success, scoring a combined 75 points the last two weeks.

Connor Shaw was brilliant against the Tigers, putting in a career night just a week after coach Steve Spurrier said he played his best game as a Gamecock against The Citadel. Alshon Jeffery has had two straight strong outings since being missing in action for several weeks. Buster Anderson has emerged as a rising star at tight end. The rush attack, led by Brandon Wilds and now Kenny Miles after Saturday, has more than exceeded expectations since Marcus Lattimore was injured. The offensive line has improved greatly.

Given the fact USC will have more than a month to prepare for its bowl game, the Gamecock offense could look even better in the season finale.

The Gamecocks only had one takeaway Saturday against turnover-prone Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. But USC made his life rough from the first play of the game on, sacking Boyd five times and hitting him on numerous other occasions.

It seems about a decade ago that USC's defense was a glaring weakness. Since finding its mojo with back-to-back late stops to thwart Navy's upset bid at Williams-Brice Stadium back in September, the unit had been flat-out dominant. Its performance against Clemson may have been its best yet, given the Tigers' high-powered spread offense.

The defensive line has been stellar all year, but USC's linebackers have really played well of late, despite several injuries. The secondary has also stepped up in recent weeks. There's only so much you can say about Ellis Johnson's defense, and most of it has already been said. USC is that good.

USC's special teams aren't very good. But they haven't killed the Gamecocks, hence the grade still being in the "B" range.

The ugly blocked punt against Clemson was more the result of an inexperienced punter than a failure in scheme or execution. With more seasoning, punter Joey Scribner-Howard probably just falls on the ball and takes the loss rather than make a futile effort to get the kick off.

The kickoff team looked better a week after being eviscerated by Spurrier after the Citadel game, but much of that was due to Sammy Watkins not returning kicks and the directional kicks USC was employing. Jay Wooten's touchback was a relief, though. And Wooten continued to produce as a placekicker against Clemson.

After a few fumbles early in the season, Ace Sanders has been very steady as a punt returner. Now USC just needs to get him breaking off more long runs like the season opener against East Carolina, as well as figure out who should be its kick returners.

Lee Corso, the longtime analyst on ESPN's "College Gameday," is not very popular with South Carolina fans. But something he said Saturday was music to the ears of those who follow the Gamecocks.

Corso suggested that, given all of the injuries and attrition USC has dealt with this season, Spurrier should be named SEC Coach of the Year for leading the Gamecocks to the most conference wins (six) in school history.

The honor will probably be given to LSU coach Les Miles, whose team is 12-0 and the top-ranked team in the country, or Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who has led the Commodores to an unexpected bowl berth. But what Spurrier and his staff have done­ — getting this team to where it is — does deserve acclaim. USC has had to completely reinvent itself offensively and play almost perfectly on defensive, and it's done just that.

No, the Gamecocks did not repeat as SEC East champions. But that's about the only thing fans can complain about. USC just turned in its most complete performance of the season against rival Clemson, and the product was a dominating 34-13 victory.

South Carolina has won 10 games for the first time since 1984 and only the second time in school history. It has defeated Clemson three consecutive times for the first time since 1968-70. It will play in a traditional New Year's Day bowl game. It can still win a school-record 11 games.

After all the Gamecocks have endured this season, the fall has played about just about as well as they could have hoped.