In the early going Saturday afternoon, it became clear linebacker Skai Moore, the brightest spot of South Carolina’s struggling defense, was not a big part of the game plan.
During the game, word got out he missed practice during the week for a family funeral. Even a week of practice is often not enough to prepare for a triple-option offense (see: Gamecocks performance Saturday), and it would logically follow that someone with less preparation would be far less useful.
Only in the middle of the game, Moore’s lack of preparation ceased to be a barrier to getting on the field.
Going out for the final series of the first half, The Citadel was set to either run out the clock or have to throw, playing to Moore’s strength in coverage. But then he was in the second series of the second half, gone for two more and back for the last two. He finished with three tackles.
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A close look of the game video didn’t show many true breakdowns on his part. He helped stuff one option play, got cut blocked a couple times and didn’t have any big miscues. He was on the field in the late going, when Columbia’s own Tyler Renew took advantage of a USC defense overloading the line and getting pulled out of position by the option to rumble 50-plus yards for the game-deciding score.
The Gamecocks countered the Bulldogs’ three-back attack by playing three linebackers more than they have all season. Bryson Allen-Williams was in for Moore, and Jonathan Walton saw more time.
Both had a couple of notable plays as Allen-Williams twice knifed into the backfield to disrupt outside runs, while Walton had a big sack and disrupted a few option plays. Neither really put a dynamic stamp on the game, and many tackles came from cleaning up fullback dives that were the responsibility of the line.
The Gamecocks deployed many of the standard practices when dealing with the option.
They had the scout team run without a ball, an age-old tactic to teach players to target their assigned man. They stood up defensive ends to try to tweak who the offense was supposed to read. Their most effective counter came in-game as they shifted defensive tackles between gaps just before the play, hoping to mess with the reads and checks the Bulldogs used. That helped slow The Citadel after a hot start but did not shut them down.
Bulldogs coach Mike Houston called a masterful game, deploying his own set of tweaks. He’d get linemen moving in different spots, have his players shift and lean to keep the defensive flow off-balance. He’d often have his backside lineman slip off defenders to get downfield, a ploy usually used against less athletic defenses (the Bulldogs rarely paid for doing it).
Fourth and the game
In a crucial juncture late in the fourth quarter, South Carolina needed one yard. Get that and 15 more yards and they’d be in field-goal range.
The ball went to back David Williams, he was stonewalled and USC’s hopes were on life support.
Only that run has more backstory.
On the play, the Gamecocks’ offensive line peeled down, leaving an unblocked end for Perry Orth to read. If the end held up, Williams had a lane up the gut. If the end crashed, Orth would have an option outside (in the past that has been a dump-off to Walton in the flat, though on video, it looked as if Orth might have just run behind Walton and tight end K.C. Crosby). The Bulldogs blitzed into the play. It looked as if there was some indecision and Williams ended up with the ball heading right into an unblocked defender.
The play design is solid, logical in theory, but it ignored two notable factors.
The first was that two or three other times during the day, Orth had issues with reads, once letting an unblocked defender get Williams deep in the backfield and once having to scramble on a busted play from the team’s heavy look.
The other issue was one of theory vs. practice. USC should have a bigger, more talented offensive line. The Gamecocks have thick, athletic fullbacks. They needed a yard. That hammering ahead wasn’t the obvious choice speaks volumes.
Volumes backed by the echoes of earlier in the game.
USC’s offensive front got whipped in the big picture sense and on the granular level as well. The first drive ended as a three and out when No. 2 tight end Kyle Markway got blown up, erasing a cutback lane. Jerell Adams had a couple notable poor blocks, including a power play where his and offensive tackle Blake Camper’s men broke through and threw Brandon Wilds for a loss.
Both of South Carolina’s longest runs (18 and 11 yards) involved backs having to get past defenders literally standing in the hole at or behind the line of scrimmage. Williams found the same stumbling block one play before his ill-fated stuff (forced to cut back after an FCS line blew up the interior for the Gamecocks), and had to bulldoze through for two yards just to create the chance his team went on to squander.
Long on options
Citadel’s two most dramatic statement plays came on bread and butter option calls. The nature of the option involves a sneaky propensity for big plays, and the Gamecocks couldn’t stop that.
On the game’s second play, an end and two linebackers were sucked in by a fullback dive. They recovered enough to force quarterback Dominique Allen to pitch the ball, but A-back Cam Jackson had numbers going toward the sideline. His lead blocker cut the legs from under safety T.J. Gurley, and with the cornerback locked up with a wide receiver and a safety taking a bad angle, Jackson had an open lane for a 59-yard jaunt.
It was the sort of run that had a cluster of three defenders standing in open space, watching and trying to recover. On Renew’s 56-yard run late, there was a similar cluster of defenders, only they’d been lured to the outside.
On third and one, the Gamecocks had loaded the box and put six men on the line. The option rolled as designed, and linebacker T.J. Holloman and safeties Gurley and Isaiah Johnson all popped outside, leaving a wide lane after Walton lost grip on him.
The best way to stop the option is to disrupt its operation in the backfield with penetration from the line. South Carolina got nothing of the sort.
Since Steve Spurrier left, fans have taken well to the wrinkles the staff has deployed. This one might have gone too far.
In a vacuum, there might be some logic behind the Gamecocks throwing the ball to a 320-plus pound offensive tackle for a crucial two-point conversion. South Carolina rolls out its quarterback often (shortens the distance on many routes to Pharoh Cooper) and taking advantage of defenses over-pursuing makes sense. But things didn’t go well.
To start, safety Shy Phillips, on Shell’s side, eventually noticed and recovered. Shell’s route seemed to take him curiously far behind the line of scrimmage, which meant more ground to cover when he got the ball. Orth also seemed to hop when the threw the ball as defenders came down on him (he missed several key throws when he started to duck to brace for the hit as defenders bore down).
Orth’s throw took longer to connect. Shell was farther from the goal line. It all meant Phillips had a much easier time smothering a play that might have been a tad too cute for the circumstances.
▪ Had South Carolina won, wide receiver Deebo Samuel would have been a feel-good story. After fighting a nagging hamstring, his 27 yards came on short hitch routes, making him a solid, safe option for a team lacking those.
▪ USC’s red zone woes continued. Trips inside the Citadel 20, 10 and 25 produced three field goals. Two touchdowns after halftime actually raised the team’s drive-finishing numbers, which still rank outside the top 100 nationally.