David Cloninger looks at South Carolina’s 2-4 (1-4 SEC) record and assigns midterm grades.
It’s been six games’ worth of rotation between Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain, and the results have reflected it. The Gamecocks can’t get into any offensive rhythm because neither offers a complete package – it has been Orth will utilize the pass or McIlwain will utilize the run. Each has been decent at times and poor many other times, McIlwain’s struggles pointing to youth and Orth’s pointing to being a former walk-on. If they could somehow chop each in half and sew together a McIlOrth …
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Nobody’s been able to break out, which adds up to a paltry 3.0 yards per rush and 92.3 yards per game. Some of that is on the offensive line’s inability to run-block and some of it is personnel. A.J. Turner can be dynamite if he gets an open hole, but his slight build doesn’t make him an every-down back. David Williams’ attitude has switched 180 degrees, but he’s still not a guy that USC can lean on for 20 carries per game. Rico Dowdle is the future, but he’s only played two games and rushed 16 times.
When Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards are on the field, the Gamecocks look a lot better. Edwards is USC’s second-leading receiver (258 yards) despite missing chunks of time and Samuel is third after only playing three games. The others – well, they’re young and inexperienced. While Orth can make them relevant, they have to run correct routes, get off blocks and not stumble or drop the ball when they get it in open field. True wide receivers are two of USC’s top five pass-catchers, and those are Edwards and Samuel. The next guy up is Terry Googer, with six catches for 53 yards.
I thought he’d be a star this year and I haven’t been disappointed. Hayden Hurst is USC’s most reliable and most productive receiver, can throw a great pass and is bullish enough for yards after contact. K.C. Crosby and Jacob August are solid backup options and Kiel Pollard has played in five games.
The first two games featured bull-rushes against Orth and McIlwain and while the pass-blocking has continued to improve, run-blocking has continued to suffer. It hasn’t helped that Donell Stanley has missed all but the season’s first quarter and Blake Camper has missed most of five games. Cory Helms, Malik Young/D.J. Park and Mason Zandi are pushed backwards far too often and while Zack Bailey and Alan Knott have been consistent at left guard and center, USC needs far more push to spring the running game. Adding a tight end to the line has helped at times but for a group expected to be the strength of the team, it has been a severe disappointment.
It’s tough to grade any defensive line these days because of the advent of the spread offense, where sacks are hard to come by and teams don’t lean on the running game as much. That explains the disparity in the leading tackler numbers – one has to go six names before finding a USC D-lineman on the chart. Yet, that’s Darius English, who is having the best season of his career and has more than half of the team’s sacks (six). The line was bad against Mississippi State and Georgia and still couldn’t handle Kentucky’s running game, but it’s definitely improved from last year. Qua Lewis and Taylor Stallworth each have two tackles for loss, Dante Sawyer has three and you can see the future in D.J. Wonnum. It could be much better – but it’s not their fault they have to stay on the field so long.
They’ve been mostly very good, although Kentucky and Georgia really exploited them (the Bulldogs because the D-line couldn’t wrap running backs and they had a head of steam going to the second level). Playing without Skai Moore, Bryson Allen-Williams and T.J. Holloman are having good seasons, BAW leading the team with 37 tackles and a second-highest 4.5 for loss. Like the line, they have to stay on the field much more than they should but they’re overcoming a lot of depth issues and producing.
It’s so, so pleasing to see defensive backs cover the middle of the field, which was an issue pooh-poohed by previous defensive staffs. D.J. Smith is having a terrific year and Chris Lammons, after two undistinguished years, has proven himself capable of playing big-time football. USC averages an interception per game and the DBs have five, Lammons with two. Mark King also has had some big hits and plays.
Sean Kelly is one of the SEC’s best punters and Elliott Fry has been a strong place-kicker, but the return games remain shoddy. USC can’t find a punt returner who can simply catch the ball, never mind get a few yards after it. Turner is strong at kick return (although he rarely has a chance to return one) and the kick coverage units also could use some work. The past three games have weakened special teams’ usual shine, with key gaffes looming large in the final scores.
On defense, USC is night-and-day different from last year, and that’s despite the loss of Moore. The Gamecocks look like they know what they’re doing and are at least in their correct positions most of the time. They do get gashed occasionally, but much of that is fatigue late in the game. On that note, Will Muschamp’s staff gets an A-plus. Offensively, it’s been stagnant. While not many (if any) could have come in and made this collection of talent move the ball consistently, I don’t blame play-calling or scheme as much as I do execution. Key players are young and inexperienced, and USC had no one area to lean on – the running game was already weak and the passing game not much better. I think it could be better than 14 points a game, but I’m struggling to find a specific reason how.
The defense is keeping USC in games but the offense can’t deliver, and now special-teams mistakes are beginning to pile up. Yes, there are plenty of reasons why, and not many expected different. But as Muschamp says, you are what your record says you are.
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