The South Carolina football team put up the sort of defensive performance against Western Carolina that will give Gamecocks fans hives with Clemson coming next.
The issue was big plays, and the two biggest problems: Giving up scrambles and not playing tackle-over runs correctly.
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp pointed to both areas after the win Saturday, and a breakdown of the tape showed those two problems played roles in five of the eight longest plays the Gamecocks gave up. Those big plays were especially notable since they accounted for 56 percent of Western’s yardage.
The three scrambles all came on third down or second and long. On each, the defensive line didn’t do much to contain, and the middle of the field opened as routes developed. USC brought different numbers of rushers each time and on two of the plays had multiple missed tackles.
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There’s an outside chance the Gamecocks could spy Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson to prevent such issues from reoccurring. With how complex offenses are at this point, teams can’t just take one player outside the larger structure of the defense, especially one who could still be at a disadvantage against Watson in the open field.
That will come down to the defensive linemen being able to stay where they need to. Late against WCU, they did stop a draw in space, with Steven Montac getting to a spot and making Catamounts quarterback Tyrie Adams slow up until help arrived.
The tackle-over runs are likely an easier fix. On those plays, a tight end slots in at one tackle spot, allowing the lineman to move to the other side and provide more beef at the point of attack on power runs. It also sometimes causes issues with how players are supposed to align, leaving certain gaps unattended, which also cropped up against Missouri and UMass.
Those plays produced touchdown runs of 39 and 16 yards, and come down to translating preparation into play (Clemson might not run those plays either).
The other big plays USC gave up were either pop passes off very effective run fakes or one 57-yard bomb where WCU’s big receiver, Spearman Robinson, managed to get separation from the Gamecocks’ top cover corner, Jamarcus King, and then drag the defender after the catch.
Cocks on the run
The cliché expectation is for the power conference team to simply run over and overpower an FCS opponent.
But the way the Gamecocks did it was even a little much.
USC runners got six or more yards downfield before a defender made contact six times on their first seven carries. For the game (56 carries), the Gamecocks had 13 carries with six yards before contact.
That set of runs includes a 14-yard Deebo Samuel jet sweep where the edge was set so well he was untouched, and a 43-yard touchdown where Rico Dowdle bounced outside.
The Gamecocks’ running game has matured as the season has gone on. At points, the takeaway was USC didn’t need to do that much different, it just had to do it better.
Granted it was against an inferior opponent, but the Gamecocks mixed power runs, sweeps and a heavy dose of inside zone runs well, deploying Samuel on jet runs to strong effect.
“The jet sweep has been money for us,” Samuel said. “I have three pulling blockers, lineman pulling, and a running back and a receiver out there. Most of the time, they’re outnumbered, and I just hit the gap.
Clearing the way for Deebo:
USC closed the game running their base inside zone play 10 times in the final 11 snaps, putting two tight ends in the box for a wide blocking front and hammering away.
▪ Defensive tackle Kelsey Griffin had a few nice plays acting as a ballast against the run. He forced running backs to redirect several times on a crucial goal line stand in the second quarter.
Gamecocks bow up:
▪ On a double pass trick play, tight end Hayden Hurst did a good job looking off the safety to ensure quarterback Jake Bentley was open.
▪ Bentley didn’t have the biggest statistical day, but he continued to surprise as a runner. The freshman had a broken tackle, juked a defender on a zone read and had another instinctive scramble in a tight spot.
▪ Bentley also had an impressive throw in a scramble situation, deftly dropping a pass to a well-covered Dowdle, who broke downfield after running a route into the flat.
Threading the needle:
▪ On Western Carolina’s late kickoff return touchdown, a fake reverse basically split open a wide hole in the coverage unit, something Muschamp was quite perturbed by after the game.
▪ Opponents continue to bite when Bentley fakes running up the middle on “counter-read” plays. The line blocks like the quarterback is going inside, while the running back goes outside. Bentley sells the play with a hard step toward the line of scrimmage and it often opens things on the edge.
▪ A couple times, South Carolina deployed a four-defensive end line in obvious passing situations.