It seemed obvious how South Carolina’s defense would play when news broke that Missouri was starting true freshman backup quarterback Drew Lock in place of the suspended Mary Mauk. It was the same plan they’ve had most of the year.
Make the young passer matriculate the ball down the field with short pass after short pass and hope the front four could create the pressure needed.
He did it, and the front didn’t, leading to a day that was efficient only because it was so deeply conservative. Based on a breakdown of game film, South Carolina produced real pressure on only six of 30 dropbacks and created, perhaps, a little traffic in the pocket on three or four more.
The Tigers’ staff helped Lock by designing a gameplan that produced short passes. His day was heavy on short outs, screens, bootlegs and dumpoffs, so he often got the ball out before the defense could close in.
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He netted only 6.5 yards per completion, 2.7 lower than the lowest-ranked full-time passer (120th-best) in the NCAA. Missouri’s offense produced nine plays of 10 or more yards out of 67 total (excluding kneel downs). Only three came through the air.
In that sense, the defense did what was needed, but didn’t take command. That’s not an ideal outcome against an offense with a green leader, especially with how Missouri could stage longer marches around South Carolina’s offensive missteps.
The freshman game
Perhaps this was to be expected. A dual-threat true freshman is due to face some turbulence. The offensive line didn’t help, but South Carolina’s Lorenzo Nunez looked like someone making his first road start against an SEC defense.
He was jittery in the pocket, quick to try to break out and often running into more trouble than he got out of. He was pressured on 48 percent of his dropbacks with clean rushes and took some hard hits on runs before eventually having to leave the game.
That indecisiveness manifested itself in a trio of ugly interceptions, plus a pass that should have been picked, when he threw it up off his back foot and running back Shon Carson swooped in to scoop up the tip for a touchdown. All three turnovers came in consecutive possessions after halftime and showed the young passer still has a ways to go.
On the first one, he had a small window to hit Pharoh Cooper, but instead of leading him deep, an underthrow allowed safety Kenya Dennis to make a play on the ball. Nunez had a receiver open on the sideline on the second one, but instead of a quick pass between the corner playing the flat and the safety in Cover-2, Nunez lofted it deep, right into the zone of deep safety Ian Simon.
The third interception came when Nunez overthrew tight end Jerell Adams. A dart or short dump off would have gotten it done, but he seemed a bit overexcited trying to beat a blitz.
The fact all three involved lofted balls and trouble with placement circles back to issues in the pocket, not getting feet set and standing tall, not yet fully comfortable with that element of the role.
The Gamecocks put constraint concepts into use, something that puts defenses in more of a bind. Those plays often pair an inside run or zone read with a bubble screen on the outside, usually attacking wherever a perimeter defender (slot cornerback or outside linebacker) isn’t lined up.
Those looks were used at least six times by the Gamecocks and produced one stretch when Nunez hit Pharoh Cooper on three screen passes in a row for 22 yards, all on plays when Missouri put eight players in the box.
Nunez ran a constraint screen on a trick play. Cooper took a direct snap and ran a sweep to the boundary side before pulling up to pass. Nunez, who had switched into Cooper’s spot in the slot on the field side, motioned as if a throwback screen was coming to occupy the defense.
The Gamecocks have found success with outside sweep plays led by a pair of pulling linemen. That element of the offense especially took life when Nunez came in, as he could fake a handoff to a back going one way and cut the other way with two pullers leading the way.
But the Missouri defense did a good job reading those plays and shooting gaps, either through the linemen’s vacated spots or between the line blocking down and where the pullers were headed. The Gamecocks ran that play three times and got one, one and minus-six yards, all with Nunez having to negotiate traffic quickly.
By the numbers
▪ Six Gamecock drives crossed the Missouri 40, providing solid scoring opportunities. They averaged 1.6 points per trip, more than 2 points worse than the team’s averaged output in the first four games, which ranked 117th nationally.
▪ Of Missouri’s 16 third downs, five were seven or more yards.
Other scheme note
Missouri used South Carolina’s over-aggression on the perimeter to set up its second touchdown. The Tigers faked a screen on the goal line, both defensive backs jumped up and blocker Nate Brown cut to the end zone, where he made a tough leaping grab.