South Carolina’s special teams heavily contributed to a victory.
It’s been a long, long time since the Gamecocks have been able to say that.
In a coaching position that seemed to overturn yearly – sometimes monthly – the result was always the same. USC has had some talented specialists (former place-kicker Ryan Succop is living quite comfortably on an NFL salary these days) but has hardly ever put it all together at once. There was always a big return given up and too-little returns being produced, and the kicking outside of Succop and Spencer Lanning was as up and down as the field-goal attempts.
The newest coach in charge, Joe Robinson, has patiently answered questions about his approach even when the No. 7 Gamecocks’ first three games were about the same, if not worse, than the standard special teams performances. He even had one quip about finding some answers “if I want to keep my job.”
Saturday was just one game. It was against an SEC newcomer which couldn’t tackle and couldn’t execute. Maybe it was just a fluke.
Robinson and the Gamecocks will take it.
The USC special teams were not only solid, they were spectacular. Ace Sanders woke everybody up with a dazzling 49-yard punt return in the second quarter that is sure to be a staple of SEC highlight films all season. He had another lengthy return later in the game, and Bruce Ellington finally got his hands on the first kickoff return of the season and took it back 50 yards.
“Our special teams has really stepped up,” quarterback Connor Shaw said. “That’s been something we’ve been needing the past few years.”
He wasn’t just whistling “2001.”
Coach Steve Spurrier constantly grumbled that the Gamecocks could never get good field position and always gave it away. When Missouri’s Trey Barrow boomed a 57-yard punt in the first quarter, it seemed simply an extension of the norm – no matter who, an opposing punter turns into Ray Guy when he played USC.
But then the second quarter began and Barrow punted to Sanders. The junior caught it, stepped into the gap and started churning.
“I was just reading my blocks, that’s all it was,” Sanders said. ‘I got a couple good blocks from a couple of teammates, made the best of the return.”
Sanders hit a pile and bounced off teammate Damario Jeffery, taking a step back but seeing another hole. Jeffery helped clear out another man while Sanders dashed for daylight, and the seas parted.
Suddenly, Sanders was in the clear down the sideline. He was pushed out at the 4-yard-line, but it was close as to whether or not he stepped out or kept going to the end zone.
“He bounced off, he actually helped pick off another dude,” Sanders said of Jeffery. “It was just him being in the wrong place at the right time. It helped free me up a little more.”
That begat a 27-yard return from Sanders on Mizzou’s next attempt, and then another fortune. The Gamecocks had thus far been shut out of kickoff returns in three games, every one sailing out of the end zone or too deep into it to return. Ellington got one to him and broke for 50 yards.
One quarter, three kicks, 126 yards. Not too shabby.
“Once you get that first return and get it out of the way, see what they’re doing, how quick their line is breaking down the field, you can tell whether it’s a return day or not,” Sanders said. “I got a lot of time to make decisions.”
Robinson received a game ball and will likely enjoy himself this week. Much easier to build after success.
Sanders agreed, saying that it was a reward for hard work performed this season – and not so much the past two years.
“It made the coaches real excited about the return game,” Sanders said. “People (are) just kind of buying into what the coaches are saying. Past years, we had people taking special teams less seriously than they do now. We’ve got 11 guys who are really taking it serious and playing their hardest on fourth down.”