Fri Sep 25 12:10am EDT
South Carolina 16, Ole Miss 10. I suppose that answers the most enduring and divisive mystery of the offseason: On the question of whether Ole Miss could live up to the hype as the best Rebel outfit in 40 years, the answer is clearly, "Eh, not so much."
The Rebels couldn't protect Jevan Snead (enjoying Baltimore, Michael Oher?), couldn't complete a pass when they did and, until Dexter McCluster finally got the ball in his hands in fourth quarter desperation time, couldn't gain any traction with the run. Snead was sacked four times, fumbling once to set up Carolina's only touchdown. The Rebels failed to do anything with their best field position of the night, from the USC 31, in the first half, and failed on a fake field goal on another rare scoring chance in the third quarter. This was supposed to be the explosive offense that averaged 40 points during the eight-game winning streak (dating back to last October) that earned it that No. 4 ranking; tonight, it basically made one play.
No one's stock fell harder than Snead's, precisely because he wasn't "overrated" coming in -- he'd earned every accolade during last year's barn-burning stretch run. Even his relatively slow start against Memphis and Southeast Louisiana couldn't have foreshadowed a night this bad: 7-of-21, 107 yards, a crucial lost fumble and one very regrettable haircut to boot. Again, he was not well-protected by any means, but when he got the ball away, Snead was inaccurate and regularly put the ball into coverage. Somehow he escaped an interception, and still, if not for the quick-strike touchdown to Marketih Summers in the fourth, it would have rivaled last year's four-interception debacle at Vanderbilt as the worst night of his career. Ole Miss was abysmal on third downs -- 1-of-13, and 1-of-4 on fourth down -- and the running game did nothing whatsoever on the early downs to help that number.
Which is a tremendous credit to South Carolina's defense, nightmare linebacker/pass rusher Eric Norwood especially, for being aggressive and in-position on almost every play, the lone touchdown pass notwithstanding. But even though he was erratic, too, it does seem like we were watching the continued maturation of Stephen Garcia that was obvious two weeks ago at Georgia. Garcia barely had a chance with his porous line and often stone-handed receivers, but he was solid enough -- i.e. he made a couple key throws, didn't give the defense's win away with a turnover and converted USC's best opportunity following Snead's fumble into a crucial touchdown -- despite hobbling around between plays like a 60-year-old man coming in from a full day of chopping wood.
He did have enough left to sprint toward the student section when it was over for a little communal goodwill; we'll see about his up-and-coming status soon enough. But if Ole Miss' biggest advantage coming in was at quarterback, that certainly doesn't look like the case coming out: If Garcia and South Carolina are still basically mediocre, what does that make Snead and Ole Miss?