Who knew losing a key cog would allow the South Carolina football team to get more flexible in its secondary?
USC lost safety Chaz Elder and threw in four new members to the starting defensive backfield. It wasn't just that Steven Montac and Chris Moody came in at safety, Jamarcus King at corner and Antoine Wilder at nickel, but the new faces were not holding their spots all alone.
Close study of game video showed South Carolina rotated often against the Pirates, deploying nine total defensive backs, with eight playing at least 33 snaps.
King rotates with Rashad Fenton and Chris Lammons at corner. Wilder shared the nickel spot with Jordan Diggs and D.J. Smith played at least 72 snaps at safety. Jasper Sasser came in as part of the goal line package.
Diggs and Moody even spent some time at linebacker when ECU played four receivers and USC countered with a Dime package it hasn't had to use. The Gamecocks showed off their versatility, going to three linemen and one true linebacker and Bryson-Allen Williams at Buck.
Two of those defensive backs delivered a pair of crucial interceptions in or at the edge of the South Carolina end zone, but they did them in profoundly different ways.
Jamarcus King had to chase a receiver running a fade, negotiating his way past a receiver running a slant, a common and effective route combination. King was beat for all intents and purposes, and while the ball was slightly underthrown, he wasn't in great position to pick it off
But he showed the athleticism and length that made him one of the top junior college prospects in the country and deployed uncommon skill to go get the ball.
Lammon's interception a few drives later was on the other end of the spectrum. He laid hands on the receiver as he crossed the goal line, stuck on him and just drove to undercut the pass low and to the outside.
All along the line
The top gripe outside the program following the ECU win seemed to be questions about the offensive line. A close look revealed a day that tended toward the extremes: the goods were quite good, the bads quite noticeable.
On 29 non-penalty dropbacks, quarterback Brandon McIlwain appeared to be pressured 12 times. Notably that included three passes thrown on rollouts, usually a workaround against pressure, and several play-action throws. At times it seemed McIlwain held the ball so long the pressure eventually came, and showed a knack for converting a few high-risk plays.
The run blocking wasn't poor all around, but tended to be higher variance. Six of 23 runs included a defender making contact with a runner in the backfield. Two or three times individual linemen got beat badly, and ECU did blitz into a sweep play to throw A.J. Turner for a five-yard loss.
But the line also had five plays where runners got at least seven yards downfield untouched. A couple involved perimeter runs, but Muschamp said he'd like to see progress on the front (on bad one included Randrecous Davis dodging defenders in the backfield, but slipping ahead on pure ability).
The coach added the team is still working on cadence with its young passer, and those growing pains filter down to the line.
The most notable issue on the line was the 4th-and-1 call from South Carolina's own 40 early in the game. The decision to go for it was aggressive, but not preposterously so. The call wasn't bad either, a play where the quarterback eliminates an unblocked linemen by reading him and either plunges up the gut or hands off to a runner going outside with several lead blockers. But any short yardage play can't have the offensive line pushed a yard or two deep in the backfield, as it was when South Carolina's offense couldn't convert that play
4th down run:
The way the Gamecocks have used Brandon McIlwain is evolving, likely in the way that reflects some growing comfort in his skillset.
Only three of his carries were runs called specifically for him, down from his first two. The other six at least appeared to give him the chance to read the defense and keep or hand it off.
In the opener, most of his plays paired a zone read and screen, with a few simple reads and safe options
Through the air, he only threw four screens. He was put on the move some, but also had some room to go deeper. Hitting five passes of 16 yards or more says something, and he also showed a knack for improvisation.
On a few of those he had to negotiate rushers, move in the pocket and make some pretty throws on the move.
McIlwain under pressure:
▪ ECU's linebackers overpursued fakes badly on both of McIlwain's touchdown runs.
▪ Pirates receiver Zay Jones put on a clinic of subtle receiver skills, stopping on a dime on hitch routes and breaking into space.
▪ Jordan Diggs tried to go for a hit on a fourth-down play and not wrapping up cost USC's defense a chance to get off the field.
▪ Three of South Carolina's four sacks came when sending extra rushers. Those included a linebacker blitz up the middle, a corner blitz and lining up two stand-up ends on one side of the formation. The fourth sack came when the secondary held up and USC broke through max protection.
▪ USC regularly stood up its defensive ends, having only one or two linemen down in three-point stances on 17 plays.