There aren’t many places where South Carolina will have an advantage over No. 4 Clemson when the Palmetto State rivals meet Saturday night in Death Valley.
In fact, in the shadow of the goal line may be the only one. The Gamecocks (6-5) haven’t been dominant defensively this season, but they’ve been fairly close to it in the red zone. South Carolina’s opponents have scored on 70.7 percent their trips inside the 20-yard line (29 of 41), which gives the Gamecocks the 10th-ranked red zone defense in college football.
Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson “talks to us all the time about pride,” linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “When guys step inside the 20-yard line, it’s all about pride. It’s a pride that you have to have about not letting them in the box. That’s something that we talk about throughout the week, and that’s something that we pride ourselves in is having a good red zone defense and stopping guys from getting touchdowns.”
The No. 4 Tigers (10-1) rank 80th in the country in red zone offense, scoring on 81.8 percent of their trips inside the red zone.
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“We dedicate days in the week to red zone defense,” South Carolina linebacker T.J. Holloman said. “We dedicate multiple periods a day to studying team’s keys and tendencies in the red zone. I feel like that extra time we put into it has made us really successful.”
South Carolina devotes large amounts of spring practice and its preseason training camp to red zone defense and then spends most of its in-season Wednesday practices working in that area of the field, head coach Will Muschamp said.
“We want to make sure our guys know how to play down there,” he said. “From a secondary standpoint, it’s so frustrating to watch teams play and see defensive backs back into the end zone, guys catch the ball at the 2-yard line and fall into the end zone for a touchdown. That’s just situational awareness about where you are on the field, but you can’t just talk about it. You have to really practice it.”
The Gamecocks have forced six turnovers in the red zone this year, but the focus on each trip is to limit the opponent to a field goal, Muschamp said.
“If we do that 60 percent of the time, that’s winning football,” he said.
The Gamecocks are fifth in the SEC in red zone defense, behind Florida, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. They are 20th in the nation in touchdowns allowed in the red zone, letting opponents into the end zone 51.2 percent of the time.
“Down in that position, you know you can bow your neck a little more because they don’t have a lot of places to go with the ball,” linebacker Jonathan Walton said. “That helps a lot. When we make stops down there, it is big.”
Last week, the Gamecocks stopped Western Carolina on four consecutive plays from the 1-yard line and then went on a 98-yard touchdown drive.
“When the field condenses, we get in our mind, ‘OK, we have to defend this goal line,’ ” Holloman said. “We just buckle down as a defense and lock into our keys and lock into what we have practiced all week.”
The condensed field also offers schematic advantages to the defense because it limits the options of an offense, Muschamp and the players said.
“It’s definitely easier to defend a shorter field,” Allen-Williams said. “There is not a lot you can do in the red zone. There is not a lot of space for guys to move around and work.”