Bryan McClendon: Running game ‘beyond’ important for USC
Historically, when power manball ruled the day, waging longer drives and keeping the ball out of the opponents’ hands was a mark of power. But in the era of high-tempo offenses, a number that rewards a team for simply taking longer to snap the ball seems a little misdirected.
But if you fall old-school or new-school, the South Carolina football team finds itself in the ignominious position of being last in the whole NCAA in that number.
But does that matter?
The answer isn’t so clear. Both offense and defense contribute on that front (the offense holding the ball, the defense getting off the field), and it doesn’t say too much about the offense but says a good bit about the other side of the ball.
Let’s start on offense.
After two years of Will Muschamp promising more tempo, coordinator Bryan McClendon delivered. Based on a pace metric by SBNation’s Bill Connelly, the Gamecocks offense ranked 11th in how fast it went. The offense didn’t grind out drives all that well (somewhere in the just above average range), but it did deliver a good number of big plays.
Factor in that South Carolina was better through the air than on the ground and more often broke off big plays than posted 10-play drives, and not dominating possession on offense makes sense.
But the other side of the ball is more tricky.
The Gamecocks can’t exactly control how fast anyone else snaps the ball, but they can control two factors: forcing quick stops and how many big plays they give up.
The impact of the first is rather obvious, quick stops mean less time with the ball. The second is trickier because although giving up big plays is bad, it does help time of possession (this is part of the reason that stat is falling out of favor).
South Carolina’s defense isn’t particularly built for quick stops and it’s very good at preventing big plays (No. 12 nationally last year by one metric, despite a slew of defensive issues). The Gamecocks only force three-and-outs on 20.5 percent of their drives against FBS foes, discounting garbage time, a number that ranks outside the top 100 nationally.
USC’s scheme, built heavily on Cover-3 principals works to prevent the big play first, often allowing opponents to stage longer marches and, yes, run up the time of possession.
Against a team that can grind things out, like say Virginia in the bowl game, that might mean giving up five drives of eight or more plays.
Overall, South Carolina’s defense faced an average of 75.9 plays a game (116th nationally) and ran 68.1 (83rd). The gap between those was the ninth-largest in the sport.
But the end question becomes, is this an indicator of winning? It is, but not to a massive degree.
The top 10 teams in time of possession include five with nine or more wins and three that missed bowls. In the bottom 10 there were five non-bowl teams, but a pair of squads with 11 and 12 wins.
From all this, we can likely take that South Carolina’s time of possession deficit isn’t exactly a big deal. It got as bad as it was because of a defense that certainly counts as a big deal, but unless the offense turns up the running game and throttles down the pace, USC will likely be on the lower end of that going forward.