At one point Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium, Tennessee converted eight of nine third downs against South Carolina.
For a Gamecocks’ unit that entered the evening as one of the nation’s best at shutting down drives, it was a maddening trend, as the Volunteers used short slants, screen passes, gritty runs and the occasional QB scramble to keep drives alive, drives that turned into points and gave UT the lead for all of the first three quarters.
Coach Will Muschamp didn’t sugarcoat it afterward.
“Defensively, third down was just disastrous. Just couldn’t get them off the field on third down,” he said. “I want to credit Tennessee credit because they did a really good job in the screen game, kept us off balance with some things. They did a really nice job in that regard.”
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Tennessee ended the game converting 11 for 16 on third downs — a 68.75 percent success rate. The previous high for a Gamecock opponent on the season was Georgia at 40 percent. The last time a USC foe had a better third down rate was in 2015, when Clemson made nine of 13 tries.
Entering Saturday’s game, South Carolina had allowed just 18 of 73 third down conversions, or 25 percent. That mark ranked fourth in the country and second in the SEC.
Muschamp, while obviously displeased with the result, said he felt that Tennessee’s gameplan and execution were perfect for converting third downs.
“I thought they had a good plan,” he said. “I thought there were some contested balls on third down, there were some well-thrown balls. We had (two) scrambles for third down where we had coverage down the field, we get displaced, (Tennessee quarterback Jared Guarantano) does a good job scrambling and he barely gets the first down.”
Late in the game, however, the Gamecock defense bent but ultimately came up big with stops to either keep USC in the game or preserve the team’s slim lead. On Tennessee’s final two drives, Guarantano and the Volunteers twice converted two third downs to stay on the field, only to later get stuffed and turn the ball over on downs.
On the last defensive effort, linebackers Sherrod Greene and T.J. Brunson teamed up to contain and tackle Guarantano on third down as he tried to sidestep pressure in the pocked and looked like he might scramble for the line to gain, just as Muschamp had noted happened earlier. A play later, pass rusher D.J. Wonnum burst into the backfield, pulling the Tennessee signal-caller down for a loss that effectively iced the contest.
Being able to step up and return to form on third downs had little to do with the defensive unit’s effort, said pass rusher Bryson Allen-Williams, who finished with four tackles.
“We had to slow down, slow the game down, fall back on our technique, understand that they were trying to hit us on a couple screens and quick passes and understanding that we got to do our job as a front and help set the edge,” Allen-Williams said. “A lot of teams now just try to get the ball on the perimeter ... D-linemen, we gotta run to the ball, get out there and stop some of those long runs, those outside runs.”
Third-down defense will once again be crucial when South Carolina visits Ole Miss next Saturday — the Rebels entered this week ranked fifth in the SEC and 43rd nationally in third down conversion percentage, at 41.8.