No Clown-ing around

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By KOLBY PAXTON

When Vincent Smith’s helmet finally came to rest, and Mike Tirico managed to catch his breath, the legend of Jadeveon Clowney had officially reached its own fever pitch.

Few will ever remember the previous play, a fake punt with a little more than eight minutes to go. The Michigan ball carrier got close to the sticks, close enough for a measurement. Upon chain extension, however, it was clear that the South Carolina defense had stopped the Wolverines several inches short of the first down.

Only, it hadn’t. Inexplicably, Conference USA officials abruptly awarded Big Blue a fresh set of downs.

Clowney, a 6-5, 275-pound freak of nature, merely exacted justice on the following play, coming untouched through the B-gap and demolishing Smith. It was, by all accounts a text book form tackle; crown up, eyes forward, mask to chest. Clowney arrived at the back virtually simultaneously with the football, jarring it free, and plucking it up, himself.

The play remained perched atop ESPN’s Best of the Best before eventually earning an ESPY for Best Play of the Year. It also turned the Outback Bowl on its ear, as South Carolina – trailing 22-21 at the time – rallied to win in the waning seconds.

Now hear this: Were it up to ACC officiating supervisor Doug Rhoads or Pac-12 officiating consultant Mike Pereira, the same play in 2013 would result in a Clowney ejection.

That’s because of insanely moronic legislation from the NCAA that requires the very same oft-inept officials, that just moments earlier missed a call that was sitting completely still, to interpret the intent of a defender at full speed, and to run those players deemed to have malicious intent at the jerk of a knee.

Despite the fact that Clowney planted his face in Smith’s shoulder pads, he would have been tossed because – are you ready for this? – he arrived nanoseconds before the hand-off, and the poor Michigan running back was, at that moment, “defenseless.”

That means, in order for South Carolina to avoid losing its best player – and likely the game – Clowney, upon realizing that he was coming scot-free, and upon recognizing that Devon Gardner was about to hand the ball to Smith on a power play being run directly at him, would have had to slam on the breaks, wait for Smith to take the hand off, and hope to catch him falling backwards.

Nevermind the obvious physical impossibility of that. Pereira and Rhoads never played in college – which also sheds some light on how effectively they even managed to play in high school. They have no idea that you can’t expect Clowney to do anything other than what he did, because they have no idea what it feels like to be Clowney – or  a slow, short, 230-pound version of me, for that matter. And they share that disposition with the vast, overpowering majority of NCAA rule-makers.

Get ready. A player on your favorite team is going to be ejected this fall. Tossed. Gone. All because a middle-aged referee, in way over his head, haphazardly deduces that said player should have – on the other side of the 30 yards that he just covered in three seconds – contorted himself in a different way, recalibrated, while moving the body of bengal tiger at the speed of a gazelle, in order to avoid touching the wrong spot on a moving target.

Better yet, it won’t even take an obvious collision in order for a player to subject himself to such snap judgment. In addition to the no-no that is “lowering the crown of the helmet” and the highly debatable “defenseless player” rule, check out this beauty: “Players may be ejected for leading with helmet, forearm, fist, hand or elbow into the head or neck area.”

In essence, unless a player executes a flying judo kick to the facemask – an act that would constitute an unnecessary roughness penalty, but actually could not result in an ejection – he may not, by the letter of the rule, touch an opponent anywhere above the shoulder pads.

Think about that. How ambiguous is that?

Subjective enough that it has already become quite clear that conferences are going to legislate the rule individually. Clowney is tossed in the ACC. He’s tossed in the Pac-12. But in the SEC? He’s good to go. At least, according to Steve Shaw, SEC head of officials, who says the hit was clean.

So, the Southeastern Conference is going to let the boys play, because of course it is, but what happens when top-ranked Alabama is on the ropes versus two-loss Florida in the SEC Championship? You don’t think the Gators become just a little too malicious all of a sudden? Really?

Better question: The National Championship game will not be officiated by referees from either participant’s league. That means that Alabama or Georgia or Florida or South Carolina may very well run into a group of trigger happy ACC officials in the most important game of the season – a season during which physical play has been rewarded, only suddenly it’s outlawed. Every conference in the country not called the SEC is sick and tired of those three letters, and now they can do something about it – even if they could otherwise do nothing about it.

Didn’t you wonder why the Muschamps and Bielemas and Sabans of the world were a singular opposing voice at SEC Media Days, while no other coaches from any other conferences had anything – anything at all – to say about the new ejection rule?

They know this thing is going to get messy.

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Top 12 in ’12 – No. 11 South Carolina Gamecocks

By Kolby Paxton

He wasn’t even carrying the ball.

With less than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, it was freshman wide receiver Bruce Ellington who got the call on second-and-four from the South Carolina 45. Ellington skipped through a tackle en route to a 13-yard gain and a Gamecock first down.

Left in his wake, however, was All-Everything running back Marcus Lattimore.

Lattimore was screening for his teammate when his right knee was viciously tangled under a Mississippi State defender. Though team officials held out hope that the injury was merely a sprain, it was evident within moments of the incident that Steve Spurrier’s favorite player – perhaps, ever – was likely gone for the season.

Minutes later, quarterback Connor Shaw lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey, and the Gamecocks avoided the upset, improving to 6-1 on the season. The once optimistic narrative was gone, however, as South Carolina’s hopes of an SEC Championship were carted off along with its star running back.

With apologies to Brandon Wilds, the Gamecocks’ back-up ball carrier is the Chris Comer to Lattimore’s Boobie Miles. The former is a serviceable back, able and reasonably efficient, if less than spectacular; the latter, a transcendent talent, capable of single-handedly carrying a team well beyond the realm for which it is adequately constructed.

Without “Terminator X,” the fictional Panthers were able to roll through the likes of Tascosa, Andress, Irving Nimitz and Arlington Lamar, but couldn’t even figure out where to play Dallas Carter’s team of 30-year olds – let alone how to beat them. A healthy Miles would have constructed Reliant Stadium with his bare hands, and run all over a defense dressed in equipment that did not yet exist, inside of a stadium that did not yet exist. Without “Crazy Legs,” the real-life Fightin’ Spurriers were able to get by Tennessee, Florida, and even in-state rival Clemson, but lost to Arkansas when its running game fizzled. A healthy Lattimore would have, at the very least, topped quarterback Connor Shaw’s team-leading 24 rushing yards.

On ability alone, Lattimore is the most talented college running back since Adrian Peterson. Like Peterson, South Carolina’s feature presentation combines hair trigger agility, breakneck speed, and indomitable power. Unlike Peterson, he packs said punch in a 236 pound frame, with an ultra-enviable lower body that more closely resembles that of Maurice Jones-Drew – a lower body that, incredibly, Lattimore claims he actually neglected until a blown ACL led him to the light.

Nevermind the wonderment that accompanies the realization that a human teenager was able to churn out 2,609 total yards in 20 games, while playing in the SEC and apparently disregarding his support appendages. Instead, simply consider that said human returns in 2012, joining the suddenly seasoned Connor Shaw, and what should be one of the conference’s best defenses.

The time has come for the highly touted Jadeveon Clowney to make his presence felt in Columbia.

Shaw benefited immensely – albeit under a fire storm – from the absence of Lattimore and Stephen Garcia. The then-sophomore simply wasn’t ready for the task at hand following the dismissal of Garcia – hence the rationale behind his troubled predecessor’s nine lives. But Shaw grew into the role over the course of the campaign, eventually leading the Gamecocks in rushing three times in their final six games, including a 317–total yard, four touchdown effort versus the rival-Tigers in the regular season finale.

If the South Carolina secondary can keep pace with the rest of the unit, the Gamecocks could trend in the direction of dominant defensively, and one of the nation’s best fronts figures to provide considerable handicapping. New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has one of college football’s best defensive end combos in senior Devin Taylor (six sacks in ’11) and sophomore Jadeveon Clowney.

Excluding Navy and the Citadel – who combined for a grand total of 12 pass attempts – South Carolina surrendered only 114 rushing yards per game in 2011, a credit to that aforementioned front, and an outstanding linebacking core. Senior Shaq Wilson led the Gamecocks in tackles in ’09, before injuries derailed the middle portion of his of his collegiate career. Wilson is healthy and the spearhead at middle linebacker. Ex-safety DeVonte Holloman joins Wilson at spur – a position for which he is perfectly suited to wreak havoc on SEC offenses. The group is as deep as it is talented, as well, with three returners who started at least four games a season ago.

Prediction: 9-3 (6-2)

With an able-bodied Marcus Lattimore, anything is possible for the Gamecocks in Spurrier’s eighth season at the helm. South Carolina has improved its win total in each of the past four seasons, but will need a dozen victories in 2012 to keep that streak intact. USC opens the month of October with a home tilt versus Georgia, before going on the road to Baton Rouge and Gainesville – no recipe for success. If that wasn’t enough, the Gamecocks sandwich a scrimmage versus the mighty Terriers of Wofford with the likes of Arkansas and Clemson.