Going into South Carolina’s bowl game, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall declared that South Carolina’s offense goes as its passing game goes.
His solid pass defense with a pair of likely NFL players put the clamps on the Gamecocks without Deebo Samuel, and USC and that passing game went almost nowhere in the 28-0 loss.
So what happened? A close breakdown of the film gives a few clues.
Not staying on the field
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South Carolina likely needed a solid start to the afternoon in Charlotte, and instead watched its offense come up a yard short not once but twice on its first two possessions. (There were only four first-half possessions one would consider functionally good scoring chances.)
Drive No. 1 ended with USC falling behind the sticks on a penalty, getting to fourth and 1 on a pretty good Jake Bentley scramble and going for it from Virginia’s 42. The play call was something fans call for regularly, got with a heavy set and then deploy a play-action pass.
The play got USC several of the open receivers, but it also had Bentley off-balance owing to the run fake (protection there can be hit-or-miss). Still, Bentley had his open receiver in space. He put the ball high and his receiver had it glance off his hands, so a first down inside the UVa 40 was instead a turnover.
The next drive, USC had third and 1 on its own 29, and ran a simple inside zone using quick tempo. The direction of the run was bottled up, but there appeared to be a decent lane inside of an unblocked edge defender.
Instead of bending back toward that, or at least trying to run through the outside linebacker, tailback Ty’Son Williams leaped into a wall of bodies, bouncing off.
You can’t lay everything on two plays, but getting little to nothing off the opening possessions in a game that had five or six total before it was 21-0, that’s a problem.
UVa not respecting the deep pass
The state of South Carolina’s mid-grade running game has at times led to teams keeping two safeties back and focusing on slowing Bentley and his receivers. The Cavaliers instead chose to keep their safeties within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage much of the time, counting on pressure and their corners to keep USC from getting anything deep.
And it worked.
Before the Cavaliers went up 21-0, forcing the Gamecocks into catch-up mode, USC only had six passes longer than 9 yards on 23 dropbacks. Only two were what the staff considers “explosive plays,” gains of 22 and 31 yards.
USC got five or more yards on only eight of those 23 dropbacks.
Meanwhile, the heavier boxes caused a set of issues for USC on the ground. Thirteen true carries produced three runs of 5 yards or longer. One was a jet sweep from Shi Smith, where he had to slip two tacklers grabbing at his legs in the backfield. One was a 7-yard Rico Dowdle run where USC blocked the line and linebackers, and a safety playing up made the tackle.
Mon Denson broke USC’s lone run longer than 10 yards against a five-man box.
The Gamecocks broke out an outside toss play, which is meant to create a little misdirection based on back placement, but Virginia overplayed it and cut it off each time, with none gaining more than 3 yards.
USC tried to push the ball a couple times, but that was undone by good coverage or a couple of drops.
Old problems resurface
South Carolina’s early-season offensive issues hit some common themes that included Bentley overthrows, dropped balls from wide receivers and running backs simply not getting yards after contact. All three were issues against Virginia.
Late in the first half, as USC was driving to at least set up a field goal attempt, Chavis Dawkins had a ball in his sights that he just couldn’t handle. The Gamecocks ended up out of field goal range and got sacked on a Hail Mary attempt.
Josh Vann had two drops. The first was eventually wiped out by a Shi Smith catch and Bentley fourth-down conversion. The second came on a third down when Bentley somehow escaped pressure and threw a picture perfect pass to Vann on Virginia’s side of the field. It went for naught, and Virginia went up 14-0 on the ensuing possession.
Bentley’s overthrows returned a bit, the fourth-down play on the first drive being the most notable. But later on, as USC was trying to rally, he put several balls just of reach on the sideline. He also missed a second and throwback pass to an open tight end in the flat (pressure didn’t help).
Early in the season, Will Muschamp lamented his backs weren’t running through contact, even when the blocking set up well. When the game was still in reach, they averaged 2.23 yards after contact.
This is a smaller issue, but Virginia defenders did an excellent job keeping hands up through the game and it paid off.
Twice batted balls forced a third and long and put USC in a second and 10. On several other occasions, defenders with hands high forced Bentley to try to throw over and around them, either creating overthrows, through catches, which allowed defenders to close, and at least one sack.
Obviously it wasn’t the biggest thing, but if you’re talking five disrupted plays in a span of 36, that can cause problems for an offense that’s already having issues.
The QB factor
Without Deebo Samuel, and against a defense that was challenging USC to go deep, Bentley was found wanting.
It wasn’t that some of his miscues couldn’t be attributed to protection issues, high snaps or drops, but he came into the game needing to be sharp. And he wasn’t. Even with some nice scrambles, South Carolina needed him on target, throwing free and easy, and there were just enough balls a little too high to be an issue.
The early fourth and 1 is an example. Was it an easy play, no? But it was a play the team needed at that moment and didn’t get.
As he was trying to play catch-up down 21-0, there were more issues, with Bentley pressing a little. He had a couple deeper shots where balls sailed just enough to pull the receiver out of bounds. He forced a ball into coverage without looking off the safety and got picked off, nearly for a touchdown.
With the game about out of reach, he also had what looked like a miscommunication with Dawkins
Odds and ends
▪ USC broke out the Emory & Henry formation, one that had been successful at times this year and had it blow up. Bentley’s quick read appeared suddenly covered. Under pressure, he got rid of it to K.C. Crosby, who would’ve only lost 2 yards, but fumbled at the end, putting USC in second and 15 on its last drive down two scores.
▪ Overall, South Carolina’s play-calling showed some flourish, with a lot of tempo, more toss plays, some outside zone with a fullback, different screens and RPOs. But for the most part, things fell apart with Gamecocks receivers unable to win battles one-on-one and a smattering of pass protection issues against exotic looks.
▪ There was this nifty truck sweep out of an unbalanced formation. The issue was UVa defenders surging upfield to cut it off and not a good enough job of pinning the edge defender.