As I did last summer, I'll be taking looks at key games from last year to refresh everyone's memories on them and perhaps learn something with the benefit of hindsight.
The Game: South Carolina at Auburn, September 25
The Lead Up: South Carolina def. Southern Miss (41-13), Georgia (17-6), and Furman (38-19); Auburn def. Arkansas State (52-26), Mississippi State (17-14), and Clemson (27-24 OT)
Conventional Wisdom: South Carolina practically gave the game away thanks to four turnovers in the fourth quarter.
In Reality: Auburn nearly gave the game away with two first half turnovers and poor two-minute defense near the end.
It was clear early in the season that Auburn didn't truly know what it had in Cam Newton. I made that point in my in-depth review of Auburn's game against Mississippi State. Auburn's offense got going best when he was on the move, but a lot of the offense at the time consisted of things that looked like they were designed to keep the number of hits he took low.
In a lot of ways, this is the game where Newton was unleashed. More on that in a bit.
South Carolina on the other hand knew exactly what it had and what it wanted to do. Seven of the first nine plays of the game were either rushes or receptions by Marcus Lattimore. Ultimately, he would not be a major factor, as he had just ten touches the rest of the way. There's a very good reason for that too.
The Gamecocks couldn't reliably make headway running between the tackles. No one really could against Auburn, especially when Nick Fairley was in the game. In fact, Fairley set the tone by personally stopping two Lattimore inside runs behind the line of scrimmage on the first two plays of the game. South Carolina rarely found the middle of the line inviting after that.
What Steve Spurrier did find effective was getting his players into space. There's no polite way to put it: Auburn was terrible at tackling in the open field during this game. The best example was an Ace Sanders screen pass that picked up a 3rd-and-11 early in the second quarter. Sanders caught the ball two yards behind the line of scrimmage, but he weaved his way past the first down marker as three defenders whiffed on him and a couple others ran into each other. When the Gamecocks tried running inside, the offense bogged down. When they probed the edges and threw it down the field, they found little resistance.
Auburn's offense had some issues early. Newton didn't look comfortable, sometime scrambling when he had open receivers and throwing the ball too hard to be caught a couple times. Mario Fannin and Michael Dyer lost fumbles, setting up a pair of short field touchdowns for South Carolina in the first half. Overall though, Auburn's offense would come to find it easier to move the ball than South Carolina's did. One reason is because it was the better team up front on both sides of the ball. The other?
Gus Malzahn was able to get Cam Newton to settle down and find his rhythm. He made two adjustments to get there: he slowed the pace down some, and he got Newton moving. On Auburn's final first half drive, the Tigers never snapped it with more than 22 seconds left on the play clock (and frequently had much less time to go). The drive went 76 yards in 12 plays, and Newton was 2/2 passing with 34 rushing yards.
Malzahn used the extra attention on Newton to free up Dyer on the next drive, with the freshman carrying on seven of the eleven plays. This was the point where the transformation was complete; with South Carolina devoting extra attention to Newton on every play, there was no stopping Auburn's offense from here on out. The only real stop the Gamecock defense got was on the first drive of the half, while Auburn was still getting comfortable, when Wes Byrum missed a 52-yard field goal. The next one wouldn't come until about two minutes left in the game when the Tigers simply ran it up the middle three times trying to bleed clock.
South Carolina's offense did well for itself, but ultimately it wasn't going to be able to keep up with Auburn's. It goes back to what I said earlier about Auburn being the better team on the line of scrimmage. South Carolina punted three times in the first three quarters; Auburn punted twice all game. Two of those punts were caused in large part by sacks, and Stephen Garcia's second fumble happen while getting sacked.
It was unfair of Spurrier to yank Garcia after his two fumbles, as those were Garcia's first two bad plays of the day. As he had not been picked off all game, he was less likely to throw two interceptions as the freshman Connor Shaw did. Shaw moved the team down the field just fine, but that was because Auburn switched to a bend-but-don't-break defense after it had gained an eight-point lead and saw it was facing a rookie. It just sat back and waited for the Shaw to make freshman mistakes, and he obliged twice.
That's why I say that Auburn almost gave the game away. The two first half turnovers led to easy scores. South Carolina's only second half touchdown came courtesy of a colossally busted coverage, allowing Alshon Jeffery to go 69 yards down to the Auburn 6. South Carolina had good chances to tie the game on Shaw's two drives, but again, Auburn's semi-prevent mode allowed a lot of that to happen. As great as Garcia was in this game, he was never going to make as many plays as Newton did. And Spurrier, still pretty green in his new shotgun zone read-based offense, couldn't outscheme Malzahn operating in his wheelhouse.
When December rolled around, the issues raised for South Carolina in this game all reared their heads again only worse. Newton was fully comfortable from the start instead of needing some time to find his groove. South Carolina's offensive line had the same problems with Auburn's front four, but Garcia wasn't as sharp. Newton, on the other hand, had all day to throw and made impeccable decisions on the zone read option. When you notice that Auburn got a couple gimme TDs on broken coverage and a Hail Mary heave in the first half, well, it wasn't going to be close.
For as much attention as Newton and Fairley got, and not without reason, the two lines as a whole were the MVPs for Auburn in this game. The offensive line largely kept pressure off of Newton and opened up hole after hole for Dyer. The defensive line stuffed Lattimore far more often than not and hassled Garcia just enough to make a difference.
It makes you wonder about next year when you realize that nearly everyone from those lines is gone. It's time to see if the young guys behind them are able to hit the same standard.