Originally created 09/29/03

Williams: Holtz knows his team can hang with anyone



When it comes to analyzing his opponents, Lou Holtz gives little reason to believe a word he says.

He once compared New Mexico State to Nebraska, and that tells you all you need to know.

Lately, though, the 66-year-old Holtz has proven that his analysis of his own team is something more than his typical hullaba-Lou.

A few weeks ago, two days before his team played at Georgia, Holtz was irate after the Gamecocks had one of their worst practices ever. He worried that the Bulldogs would blow his team off the field, and that's exactly what happened.

It was a different story before last week's game at Tennessee. Holtz seemed confident when few people thought he had reason to be, saying minutes before kickoff that he thought his team would "play very well."

The Gamecocks went out and did precisely that, outplaying the heavily-favored Volunteers before eventually succumbing in overtime, 23-20. There's some risk in reading a lot into a few pre-game snippets, but it's evident that Holtz has a firm grip on his team and its abilities.

Despite losing to Tennessee for the 11th straight time, South Carolina put forth perhaps the most impressive display of the Holtz era. The Gamecocks (3-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) probably don't want to hear any talk of moral victories, but they have to be more than encouraged that they gave an elite SEC team all it could handle.

This appears to be a team that is redefining itself, and it starts at the top. Holtz had a different personality on the sidelines Saturday, abandoning his typical glum-faced trudge up and down the sidelines in favor of a smiling, running, encouraging presence that gave his team the positive reinforcement that it needed.

On the field, Holtz's team seemed transformed as well. Most of that transformation came courtesy of freshman tailback Demetris Summers, who introduced himself to the nation by rushing for 158 yards.

Amassing 161 yards in an easy win over Alabama-Birmingham doesn't justify the hype that Summers brought from a celebrated high school career in Lexington, S.C. Doing what he did Saturday - and doing it on Rocky Top against a defense as good as they come - does.

If this kid doesn't give you goose bumps, you might need your pulse checked. He hits the holes the way the similarly-talented Derek Watson never could, and his smooth moves evoke images of Marcus Allen and Herschel Walker.

Several other profound developments were lost in Summers' vapor trail Saturday. Junior quarterback Dondrial Pinkins demonstrated poise and precision he wasn't supposed to have, calmly firing passes and making few, if any, of the poor decisions that characterized the loss at Georgia.

South Carolina's receivers finally proved that they can make big catches, and the Gamecocks' defense proved it could make big stops.

Given all those positives, it's almost easy to forget South Carolina came home with a loss. The Gamecocks probably didn't feel like winners after Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen made the play of the game, checking into a pass to James Banks that resulted in the decisive touchdown in overtime.

South Carolina's players looked back on yet another close loss to the Vols - their past four defeats to the Big Orange have been decided by a total of 21 points - and felt deflated.

But there's reason to believe that yet another deflating loss to the Vols won't take the air out of the Gamecocks' season. The bet here is that going toe-to-toe with Tennessee will help South Carolina win its share of toss-up games and finish the regular season with seven or eight wins.

The Gamecocks, who have this weekend off, now know that their coach knew before Saturday's game: At their best, they can compete with almost anyone.

That self-assurance should not be underestimated.

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larry.williams@augustachronicle.com.