MORRIS: Give Gamecocks’ Ward time to get defense figured out

09/02/2014 6:21 PM

09/02/2014 6:21 PM

NOW IS NOT THE TIME to panic over the defenseless South Carolina defense. The unit has plenty of time, beginning this weekend against East Carolina, to correct its problems.

How quickly we forget that USC’s defense was in a state of disarray four weeks into last season. Defensive coaches engaged in a shoving match on the sideline during the loss to Georgia in week two. Then Steve Spurrier threatened to take over the defensive coaching duties after Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles torched USC’s secondary for 358 yards in week four.

All was forgotten by the time the defense was the cornerstone to USC’s 11-win season, finishing 12th in the nation in fewest points allowed and 19th in fewest total yards permitted.

USC made a couple of personnel changes over the next two games following the narrow victory against Central Florida, but the coaches did not conduct a complete overhaul of the defense or blow up the system.

Lorenzo Ward remains in charge of the defense, as he was a season ago. He was considered one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators before Texas A&M ran up 52 points and 680 yards of offense this past Thursday, and he remains that as USC prepares for East Carolina on Saturday.

There is no need to call for Ward’s job. In fact, USC fans should have enough confidence in him at this point to know he likely will change the defense’s ways. To do that, Spurrier is smart enough to know that Ward needs help from USC’s offense.

“It’s a team sport, and the offense, defense, sort of goes together,” Spurrier said Tuesday.

There is a coaching adage that a team’s best defense is a ball-control offense. That was never more apparent than against Texas A&M, which kept its defense off the field with nine drives that lasted eight plays or more. USC had two such drives.

USC running backs carried the ball 16 times for 62 yards, meaning they were no factor in the game. The best thing USC can do for its defense against a smaller, less-talented ECU team is establish a running game early, perhaps get a halftime lead, and run out the clock. The focus of USC’s game plan should be to keep its defense on the sideline as much as possible.

When the defense is on the field, it should not abandon its 3-4 scheme. Spurrier took a jab at the 3-4 alignment in comments following the Texas A&M game, but had softened his stance by early this week. It would not be wise, based on one sorry performance, to ditch a defense that the unit prepared to play during spring drills, all summer and through fall camp.

The 3-4 scheme was instituted to best suit USC’s personnel. Without a slew of pass rushers, the 3-4 alignment best utilizes the Gamecocks’ abundance of linebackers. It also is a defense geared toward dealing best with opponents’ spread-offense, passing attacks.

Texas A&M and East Carolina run similar offenses. The time for USC to implement more of its old 4-2-5 defense will come against Georgia, which relies heavily on a power running game.

Of course, if the players do not execute the defense, it makes no difference what scheme they are playing. That was the case against Texas A&M, which rolled up more first downs than any USC opponent in history.

“You’ve got to be a good third-down defensive team,” Spurrier said. “Got to be good in the red zone, make them kick field goals. Force some punts. Got to get more three-and-outs.”

Texas A&M punted twice. The Aggies converted 12 of 17 third-down situations and both of their fourth-down plays. To give an idea of the ineptitude of USC’s defense, consider that no Spurrier-coached offense has matched Texas A&M’s 39 first downs, even during his Florida “Fun ‘n’ Gun” days.

Rest assured, though, the Texas A&M debacle will not be repeated by this USC defense. That is why this is no time for USC and its fan base to panic.

About Ron Morris

Ron Morris

Ron Morris

Morris has been employed at The State newspaper for 15 years, the last 11 as sports columnist. He is an Oklahoma native who was reared in Wyoming and graduated from UNC Charlotte. He previously worked for the Durham (N.C.) Morning Herald and the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat.Along the way, Morris has written a book, "An Illustrated History of ACC Basketball" and won numerous national and state awards for sports column writing, enterprise reporting and feature stories. He is a five-time sportswriter of the year winner in South Carolina by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. Morris has run a marathon, hitch-hiked across the country and appeared in Sports Illustrated for counting the number of times the ball bounced in a men's basketball game between Catawba College and Appalachian State. Email Ron at rmorris@thestate.com or call him at (803) 771-8432.

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