LORENZO WARD did not like what he saw on the practice field Thursday. So USCs defensive coordinator got his units attention Friday, then watched it dismantle Missouris offense on Saturday.
It is not the first time this USC defense dominated an opponent, and it will not be the last. USCs offense might provide the appetizer and special teams the dessert. But it is the defense that continues to serve as the meat and potatoes of USCs success this season.
Even so, after three sensational performances by his defense to open the season, Ward sensed something amiss after Thursdays practice. His weekly routine is to script 31 plays by the upcoming opponent to make certain the defense can anticipate any situation.
We just werent as focused as well as I thought we should have been, Ward said of the Thursday practice. Watching videotape of the practice confirmed his belief.
So Ward abandoned the routine for Friday. Instead of going through another 25-play Missouri play script, Ward showed the defensive unit a videotape of Thursdays practice.
They could see themselves, Ward said. It wasnt one guy. It was a guy here, it was a guy there. Thursday should be a day that were positive, (and) it should be a great mental day.
We want them focused and their focus wasnt what it should be. After seeing themselves, knowing that we had a good football team coming in here, they felt like they didnt want to go out and get embarrassed.
From the get-go, Missouris fast-paced offense appeared stuck in neutral. Running plays were stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Missouri quarterback James Franklin operated under extreme pressure all afternoon and was sacked three times. When he did complete passes, they were quick slants that did not amount to sizable yardage.
Ward said his offseason visit with Mel Tucker, the defensive coordinator for the NFLs Jacksonville Jaguars, helped in USCs preparation for Missouri. Tucker preached making certain a defense is lined up properly and goes after the ball.
Ward said an offense that operates like Missouris preys on defenses that do not quickly line up and check to the proper defensive alignment. On all but one series Saturday, USC was lined up and prepared for anything Missouri threw at it. That one Missouri series covered 76 yards on 12 plays and resulted in a field goal.
Other than a late, meaningless Missouri touchdown, USCs defense was smothering. In addition to Ward, Steve Spurrier gave defensive game balls to ends Devin Taylor and Chaz Sutton. Really, just about everyone on that side of the ball could have been recognized for his play.
It has been that way all season for a defense that has allowed three touchdowns in four games. Vanderbilt struck for a 78-yard touchdown pass in the opener, and East Carolina and Missouri both scored late in games mostly against reserves. UAB never got to the end zone.
Ward said he sets four goals for his unit every game, and the Gamecocks defense met three of them Saturday. The fourth forcing multiple turnovers fell short, but the one Missouri fumble led to a two-play, 37-yard touchdown drive for USC.
Missouri fell 1 yard short of USCs goal of limiting an opponent to 110 yards on the ground. Missouri had 146 passing yards, short of the goal of 180. The Tigers also converted two of 12 third-down situations, far short of the 33 percent goal Ward set.
If you cant move the ball on third down, then youre going to have a tough time winning, Ward said. If we win those battles, total yardage is not as big a deal to me as rushing and third-down defense.
USCs defense has held every opponent below 110 yards rushing, and no opponents offense has successfully converted 33 percent of its third downs. For the season, USCs defense has limited opponents to 67 yards per game rushing and a 24 percent conversion rate on third downs.
That kind of play on defense will win a lot of games for USC, regardless of what the Gamecocks do on offense or special teams.
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