Morris: Time is now for offense to take off

October 28, 2009 

  • GAMECOCKS VS. VOLS

    WHO: USC (6-2, 3-2 SEC) at Tennessee (3-4, 1-3)

    WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Saturday

    WHERE: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.

    LINE: Tennessee by 6

    TV: ESPN (TWC 26/DTV 206/DISH 140)

    RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5

    ONLINE: Following along as Seth Emerson blogs live from the game at gogamecocks.com

    Game notes

    -- A win would give USC consecutive victories over Tennessee for the first time ever; the Gamecocks won last year's meeting in Columbia, 27-6.

    -- Head coach Steve Spurrier is 11-7 all-time against Tennessee, 2-2 as head coach at South Carolina.

    -- The Gamecocks are 1-13 all-time at Neyland Stadium with the lone victory coming in 2005, Spurrier’s first season at USC.

    -- A USC win would guarantee the Gamecocks a winning season for the second straight year and the fourth time in the five-year Spurrier era.

Steve Spurrier likes to talk about how God has smiled on the Gamecocks this season. Well, it is now time for South Carolina to stop relying on Divine intervention.

It is time for Spurrier's offense to get out of neutral and kick into a higher gear. Otherwise, this season is going to end the same as so many over the past couple of decades.

"We've got to play better," Spurrier said of his offense. "We're not going to beat these teams unless we really play well, play without stupid mistakes and things like that."

One problem in evaluating a Spurrier offense is the preconceived notion that it will be efficient and high-powered. Unfortunately, Spurrier built that reputation when he coached at Duke and Florida.

Since his arrival in Columbia, his offenses have been as much miss as they have been hit. They have possessed a perpetual stutter in their step. This season's unit is representative of the five Spurrier has fielded at USC. Occasionally, fans get a glimpse of what might be. Otherwise, the offense produces a lot of frustration.

"I keep hoping and expecting our offense to really roll," Spurrier said.

To dig beneath the surface, one needs to discount USC's three nonconference games. The offensive statistics are skewed by USC having played inferior competition outside the league.

In five SEC games, USC has possessed the ball 60 times. Those 60 series have produced nine touchdowns and 10 field goals. On the surface, scoring every third time you have the ball is not bad. But an offense with more field goals than touchdowns is one that collapses when it counts.

USC also punts the ball nearly half the time (29 of 60 possessions). While USC has had 17 three-and-out series, it also has had 14 drives that covered 50 yards or more.

So why all the inconsistency? Why can't this offense be a threat to score every time it gains possession? Why does it seem like the offense plods along forever in search of a big play?

Let's look at five areas of concern: lack of experience, consistent mistakes, offensive line, play-makers and quarterback play.

Long gone is the day when Spurrier could put just about any 11 players on the field and pitch the ball around the ballpark, to use his parlance. Defenses are quicker and much more sophisticated these days, and the best offenses are those with talent and experience.

"(Defensive players are) bigger, stronger, faster athletes," Spurrier said. "Quarterbacks still throw the ball the same velocity they did 30 years ago, but the guys are running to it faster than they did 30 years ago. They react quicker."

USC gradually is gathering talent, but the most gifted players on offense are young. Of the 11 who started against Vanderbilt on Saturday, only center Lemuel Jeanpierre was a senior. Four freshmen and four sophomores started.

That inexperience has led to much experimentation on Spurrier's part.

"We're still tweaking around, trying to find out what we do best and obviously do more of that," he said.

Interestingly, most of the unit's experience is along the offensive line, where USC has had the most problems. Against Vanderbilt, USC started one senior, two juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen.

"We've got what we've got in the line," Spurrier said. "We're not a dominating-type unit. So we've got to quit complaining about it and try to give our linemen a chance to do what they can do."

Where the offensive line probably can most improve is in eliminating mistakes. There seems to be a never-ending string of missed assignments and penalties.

Otherwise, the offense has a respectable nine turnovers, and much of the credit for its plus-four turnover margin goes to Stephen Garcia and his improved decision-making.

"Stephen's playing a lot better," Spurrier said in a rare statement of praise that does not include a qualifier.

Garcia has completed 58.8 percent of his passes and has 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. Those are impressive numbers considering Garcia is in his first season as a starter.

It helps that Garcia has found a big-time receiver in Alshon Jeffery, who has 382 yards receiving and four touchdowns in the past three games.

"Alshon gives us hope," Spurrier said.

The hope is that the offense someday soon will grow up and mature into the kind of unit fans expect from a Spurrier-coached team.

"I long for 38-10 (games), something like that," Spurrier said. "That's what we all long for."

That needs to happen soon. Otherwise, the homestretch could become all to familiar for USC and its fans.

Listen to Morris Tuesdays from 4-5 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.1 FM

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