A season ago, that problem was the bane of the South Carolina football team’s defense, something that had a powerful impact on the way it operated and to a degree on how the team functioned.
The 2017 Gamecocks ranked 76th nationally in third-down defense, and that number was far worse before smothering Michigan in the bowl game. It meant opponents got long drives with regularity. It meant the offense wasn’t on the field as much. It made USC into a slower-paced team than they’d planned.
This season, USC ranks fourth nationally, allowing opponents to convert just 25 percent of third downs. They’re coming off holding Missouri to a 4-for-16 day (the Tigers converted one of their final 10), and have allowed one opponent to convert more than one-fourth of their attempts.
Safety Jamyest Williams said the reason for the change isn’t complex.
“Just doing our assignments,” Williams said. “Just make sure everybody knows what they’re doing.
“Execute, recognize them, make a play.”
This issue last season was what Muschamp called third and intermediate, plays that weren’t quite short yardage, but also not plays where the offense had to throw into the teeth of the Gamecocks’ bend-don’t-break scheme.
Much of that came down to situational awareness, knowing where the sticks were and who could do what. Muschamp said his team has done a nice job changing one big aspect of that.
“I think our defensive staff has done a really good job of making sure our players understand, as you said, situational football,” Muschamp said. “Paid more attention to down and distance. Paid more attention to what a team does on third and 3-6, 7-10, 11-plus. The game changes when they do those different things.”
He noted they’ve not changed all that much, mostly just using different pressures against appropriate offensive schemes. But they’ve avoided mistakes, and gotten opponents off the field.
For the season, USC has managed to avoid third-and-short situations (only 10 teams face them less according to numbers from SBNation’s Bill Connelly). For a stretch they’d forced a lot of third-and-longs, but that’s come down.
What they have done is rank No. 1 nationally in keeping opponents from converting third and longs, as only 9.1 percent become first downs. USC also ranks in the top 40 in terms of opponents converting third and medium or third and short.
Those situations are a focus in important stretches of practice, ones with a different sort of energy.
“It’s definitely like a game-day mentality,” middle linebacker T.J. Brunson said of those periods. “Try not to make any mental errors. You stiffen up your defense and get off the field.”
A season ago, the Gamecocks were good at bending but not breaking against the pass. They built a solid run defense and played well in the red zone. The only issue was getting off the field.
Now the red zone work hasn’t been quite as stout, though it was against Missouri. The run defense is having a spate of issues, while the pass defense is still bending more than it breaks.
But through all that, they’ve managed to fix that one issue in a big way: getting off the field.
“We just have great calls and great people in there getting it done,” linebacker Daniel Fennell said. “We have pressures dialed up and we scout the team and have plays according to what we see.”