MORRIS: Gamecock offense has a chance to get on track

10/24/2012 12:00 AM

10/23/2012 11:57 PM

Not to fret, South Carolina will find its lost offense of the past two weeks over the final four games of the regular season. It will have nothing to do with a revitalized Connor Shaw or a re-born Marcus Lattimore, and everything to do with the teams USC faces down the stretch.

USC’s offense was inept in losses at LSU and Florida. But give credit where it is due. The Gamecocks squared off against two of the strongest, most physical, dominant defenses in the country.

Just when it seems all is lost with an offense that did not consistently move the football, along comes three opponents with poor defenses and a fourth that plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level.

Florida and LSU are contenders for the national championship because of their defenses. Those units rank fourth (Florida) and 10th (LSU) nationally in scoring defense, both allowing fewer than 15 points per game.

By comparison, Saturday’s opponent — Tennessee — ranks 96th nationally, allowing 33 points per game. Looking down the road, Clemson is 62nd in the country by giving up 26 points per game and Arkansas is 87th at 31 points per game. There is a chance Wofford, the FCS opponent, might have the best defense among USC’s final four opponents.

Great defenses take away the strength of the opposing offense. In USC’s case, both LSU and Florida shut down the Gamecocks’ rushing attack. That made USC one-dimensional, and the Gamecocks have not been a great passing team.

Both LSU and Florida stacked the line of scrimmage, bottled up whatever running back was in the game for USC, prevented Shaw from scrambling out of the pocket and took their chances with man-to-man coverage in the secondary.

A defense can employ that strategy when it has the speed and athleticism of LSU and Florida. It worked, making USC’s offense look as if it was stuck in mud for the opening three quarters of both games.

Even with a couple of late drives in both games that padded its statistics, USC compiled two of the poorest offensive showings for a Steve Spurrier-coached team. USC’s 211 yards at LSU were the 10th worst total for a Spurrier-coached team and the 191 yards at Florida were the fourth worst.

USC managed 70 yards rushing in the two games combined. That makes sense when one considers that LSU and Florida are ranked ninth and 10th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 95 and 97 yards per game, respectively.

Spurrier was asked Tuesday at his weekly news conference if the lack of a running game had to do with USC’s struggles in the offensive line or more with the stout defensive front of Florida on Saturday.

“A little bit of everything, a little bit of everything,” Spurrier said. “Obviously, we got way behind early and it looked like we needed to throw it to try to get back in the game. ... But we hope to mix it up. We hope to mix the pass and the run up and give Connor some protection, if we can, when we’re throwing.

“But we know we have to run the ball much better than what we’ve done. Everybody knows that.”

Everybody should also know USC needs to again incorporate Shaw into the running game. The threat of Shaw running the ball — out of the read-option, on quarterback draws or by scrambling out of the pocket — makes Lattimore a better runner and helps the short passing game by keeping opposing linebackers honest.

Shaw has produced single-game rushing totals of 92, 41, 76 and 78 yards this season. Against LSU and Florida combined, Shaw ran the ball 21 times for minus-3 yards. Of course, Shaw took six sacks in those games.

USC’s upcoming opponents have not proven adept at stopping opposing team running games. Arkansas is the best of the three against the run, allowing 130 yards per game to rank 38th nationally. Tennessee ranks 89th, allowing 186 yards rushing per game, and Clemson ranks 99th at 202 yards.

So, the chances are good that USC’s running game will return to its early-season form, an attack that averaged 42 carries and 182 yards through the opening six games.

What that means is that USC’s lost offenses of the past two weeks will be found again.

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