The question quickly gets more complex as it unravels.
What is working for South Carolina’s football team? Where are the plays that are reliable?
After a close look at the film from the Kentucky game, there isn’t much. That’s sort of the point.
The same plays and concepts sometimes work, sometimes don’t. Fundamentals wax and wane. Consistency is lacking notably in the passing game, but elsewhere too.
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That’s life with a young team.
Right now, the Gamecocks are inconsistent on their veteran offensive line. The defense’s ability to handle blocks and make tackles comes and goes. There’s no one who fits the mold of a “go-to” playmaker, and health issues are taking out some top options.
Freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain looks very much like what he is: a solidly athletic passer who is in games because his team needs him to be.
But there are some pluses. The defense plays hard and can stand tall when the little things come into place. The running game can attack in different ways, and the passing game can build off that. The most important things USC has are players who should get better and more consistent.
At least that’s what the staff has to hope going forward.
The “real deal” offensive line promised in the offseason has yet to fully appear. It’s been discussed before, but the Kentucky game was another one fraught with issues.
McIlwain got pressured on 16 of 36 dropbacks. Ten of 27 called runs featured a defender making contact with a runner behind the line of scrimmage.
O-line can’t hold point of attack:
The miscues were somewhat evenly distributed. Tight ends missed some blocks outside. Several times tackle D.J. Park couldn’t hold the point of attack. Internal guys had their issues.
On passes, South Carolina’s tackles got run around by Kentucky’s outside linebackers several times. Will Muschamp lamented communication issues for the unit, and Kentucky’s varied pressure packages created free rushers on at least four occasions.
Receivers and tight ends also factored into blocking woes, as they often couldn’t get to players in space, forcing runners to try to juke and allowing the Wildcat defense to rally.
Ground and pound
The Gamecocks have yet to post any high-volume days running the ball, but it’s not for lack of play-calling diversity.
USC’s 28 called runs were relatively well distributed. Ten were some variation of zone runs. Eleven were gap blocking, either power or counter with pulling guards. Then there was one option, one draw play and even a toss play out of a quirky formation with an unbalanced line.
USC heavy look:
Those schemes often get McIlwain involved and build out. At the moment, the Gamecocks attack is heavy on run-pass option plays, where the line blocks for a run and receivers run routes, and the quarterback makes a read to decide who gets it.
One slight wrinkle that USC employed against UK was having runs that traditionally go outside or off-tackle able to cut up inside if there was room.
A closer look shows USC is throwing it deep sometimes but not getting much out of it.
Of McIlwain’s 30 attempts, 13 traveled 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage; six 15 or more; four 25 or more. Ten were screens behind or at the line of scrimmage.
The issue is, he connected on one of the six deepest passes he threw, and that came on a coverage bust. The two deepest shots, 36 and 42 yards to Bryan Edwards, were in the right area, but he was covered and couldn’t make the tough plays.
Deep to Edwards:
It’s worth remembering that deep plays are not simply called. Plays can have deep elements, but an offense needs the defense to open up and needs to be able to execute.
When Kentucky finally got to USC’s defense, it was because the Wildcats committed to downhill running. They started lining up in pistol formations, with the running back deep behind the quarterback, then coming downhill with a fullback and sometimes an extra tight end.
Boom Williams’ 43-yard touchdown run early in the third came on a “power” run, where a tight end tries to drive an edge defender out toward the sideline, the offensive line tries to push everyone else inside and a pulling guard leads the way up into the hole.
The Wildcats came back to that later, lining up in the pistol with two tight ends and running power five times in nine plays to set up the game-winning score.
The little things can cost
A rewatch of Saturday’s game serves as a reminder of how small South Carolina’s margin of error is, especially when it comes to penalties and bounces (i.e. fumbles).
Kentucky’s first score was only possible because of a running into the kicker call. A pass interference wiped away a big Jamarcus King interception return before the half. A block in the back took a Rashad Fenton punt return score off the board, though one could make the case it sprang him loose.
Kentucky players also fumbled right before a touchdown run and inside their own 10, but both bounced perfectly to be recovered by the Wildcats.
Bad USC bounce:
Perhaps at some point, USC will be able to overcome such issues and missed chances (as it did erasing a first and 20 en route to a touchdown), but not yet.
▪ Gamecocks Buck Darius English abused Kentucky’s backup offensive tackles, but lost in that was how well end Dante Sawyer played. The former tackle’s sack and tackle for loss were both high degree of difficulty, and even his other tackle involved burrowing under the UK line to hold a run to 2 yards.
Dante Sawyer vs. the run
▪ Kentucky continued to thrive in chaos, as many of its best runs involved backs not following blocks but finding room when the defense flowed toward the play.
▪ Safety D.J. Smith lamented coming inside-out instead of outside-in on Kentucky’s game-winning touchdown run out of the Wildcat.
▪ South Carolina’s second-best called run came on a play that was badly busted. Two offensive linemen pulled to lead a sweep, but on tripped, taking the other out of the play. But running back A.J. Turner kept running to the edge, and receivers and tight ends stuck on their blocks, letting him get 11 yards.
Turner makes do on sweep: