David Cloninger

Gamecocks’ offensive line struggles vs. Bulldogs’ pressure

They were supposed to be the strength of the team. They were big and strong and what South Carolina really needed, which was experienced.

The Gamecocks’ offensive line was off the hook last week because the pass-blocking was good and USC won. After a 27-14 demolition by Mississippi State Saturday, though, the question loomed.

What exactly is the problem?

“I credit (Mississippi State),” coach Will Muschamp said. “They whipped us twice on third-down situations for sacks. We had a hard time running it. They really jammed things up inside.”

USC allowed its first sack of the year when fifth-year senior Mason Zandi was lapped by his man on the game’s third play. Perry Orth never saw it coming and was stuffed like the groceries he used to place in paper or plastic.

A.J. Turner needed a body cast for as many times as he plowed into the line for short gains. There was always a Mississippi State defender waiting for him, and it wasn’t to warmly welcome him to the SEC.

With no running game and Orth rattled from the start, the Gamecocks’ offense never had a chance to get off the ground. As Muschamp knows, it’s a line of scrimmage league, and USC conceded it to the Bulldogs with fight estimated at 1 on a scale of a million.

Again, what exactly is the problem?

“It was difficult. I’m not sure what it was,” said Orth, who looked like he went 15 rounds with a cement mixer. “We knew they were good going into the game.”

Shawn Elliott, the only coach retained from the Steve Spurrier Era, has usually gotten the best out of his guys even when he hasn’t had much to work with. The zone-read that propelled the Gamecocks to their greatest heights was Elliott’s baby and it worked very well – then again, when there are guys named Lattimore and Shaw to squeeze through any hole, it looks awfully easy to do.

USC doesn’t have close to those kind of players now, and while scheme contributed to Saturday (running read-option works much better when the quarterback occasionally keeps the ball, and can run, which isn’t Orth’s strong suit), the line was overwhelmed from the start. The Gamecocks couldn’t run against Vanderbilt in last week’s first half, either, but one pass completion pushed back the Commodores’ defense.

There was none of that against Mississippi State. Perhaps motivated by last week’s shocking loss to South Alabama, the Bulldogs ferociously shut down any semblance of offense from USC. Sacks led to punts led to turnovers as the Gamecocks’ possibility of returning home undefeated vanished quicker than punters off Heisman lists.

“Last week we killed ourselves with penalties, this week we just started slow,” Cory Helms said.

The Gamecocks rep their linemen at all spots so they can be asked to fill in in a pinch. This came in handy even during last year’s 3-9 disaster when Zack Bailey, who’d never played center in his life, took over and did well.

We all figured in the preseason that these guys had the most experience and, for once at USC, looked the part of an SEC offensive line. Then they couldn’t open many holes against Vanderbilt and made MSU look like it had 15 men on the line.

Pressure came from everywhere – middle, left, right, middle again. No matter which USC lineman went where, he was a turnstile on greased roller skates.

What exactly is the problem? Is there one answer?

“We have a lot of guys on our offense who care about this a lot,” Helms said. “We came off the field and everybody’s pissed off. I think everybody wants to get back on track.”

Follow on Twitter @DCTheState