It’s rare you can actually see a player gain his feel for an offense over the course of a game. But for South Carolina quarterback Lorenzo Nunez on Saturday against Central Florida, a pair of passes served as progress personified.
In the middle of the second quarter, the former four-star prospect saw Pharoh Cooper, his top target, breaking over the middle against single coverage.
The pass he uncorked wasn’t bad exactly. It was mostly on-target for a deep ball, catchable and hard to intercept. But it didn’t lead Cooper much and gave the cornerback enough of a chance to accelerate, reach across and break it up.
Not exactly a deal-breaker for a dual-threat freshman in his first start.
Look forward to the fourth quarter, with the Gamecocks offense on the UCF 35-yard line, Nunez again saw Cooper running a post. Only this time, there was double coverage, with a deep safety that somehow ended under Cooper and a beat corner at his back. On this throw, Nunez gave enough lead, Cooper put his considerable acceleration to work and he snagged the score between both Knights.
A far cry from the game’s first play when Nunez’ heave was only close to the defensive back who dropped the interception.
The staff found a range of ways to use him and his dual-threat skills. His 18 carries included six zone reads, three scrambles, a couple effective lead draw plays and four plays with multiple pulling linemen ahead of him. Four runs went at least 19 yards.
He also looked for contact on a busted gadget play Cooper eventually scored on, dropping a hard block, one he wished was a bit harder.
“I was trying to pancake him honestly,” Nunez said. “He looked like he was kind of scared.”
In the face of criticism and defensive struggles against Georgia, the Gamecocks coaching staff promised changes. Some of that came from changing personnel, but it also came from something else.
The Gamecocks dialed back their blitzes but upped the pressure.
South Carolina rushed four 72 percent of the time on clean rush situations (disregarding play-action plays with quick passes), a slight bump from a week earlier. The how changed however, and that opened the way for two sacks and seven hurries (well, and UCF being much worse than Georgia).
Ten of the 26 four-man rushes featured a stunt, where linemen loop around each other to confuse blockers. The team often augmented those on third down by having three linebackers and nickelbacks line up in gaps, giving the look of all-out blitz before pulling away and possibly forcing protection adjustments.
The Gamecocks deployed a smattering of lines with defensive ends replacing tackles, called the “Green” package, and sometimes unleashed zone blitzes where two extra defenders rushed and a lineman dropped into coverage. That highlighted the particular versatility of true freshman Boosie Whitlow.
He got more work than in past games and produced, with a sack and two tackles for loss. He also drew attention on film, sometimes just for attracting attention and opening a lane for a teammate.
After open slant routes played a notable role in South Carolina’s defensive struggles a week earlier, it seemed only logical UCF might take the same approach.
The ball went to slanting receivers on four or five times, depending on if one called one 12-yard second-quarter completion an angle route or a slant. Outside that, the four throws produced two catches, one pass breakup and the first of T.J. Holloman’s interceptions on a tipped ball.
Of note, two came on what looked like packaged plays, where the front runs a run play and the quarterback reads an underneath defender. On one such play, linebacker Skai Moore actually realized what was happening, but could not wheel back fast enough to prevent the completion.
All week the topic brewed, would South Carolina pull its cornerbacks closer to the line against UCF a week after Georgia’s Grayson Lambert carved them up on a range of slants and hitches against off coverage?
Short answer, not really.
Across the 60 plays available on replay (discounting an end-of-half play), only eight had one or more cornerbacks aligned three or fewer yards from the line of scrimmage (that included one goal-line play plus some other third downs). That number rises to 24 when you add in players within four yards of the line of scrimmage, but for the most part, the off coverage was alive and well. At least one corner was in far off coverage (7-plus yards) 15 percent of the snaps.
Spots in the game also brought attention to Al Harris Jr., the smaller (163 pounds) starter on the outside, especially when he gave up a 30-yard score on a blown coverage and was too deep on a 12-yard pass a few drives later.
But looking across his whole day, it wasn’t as if he was actively picked on. He was only really involved in seven plays. One was a run (he made the tackle). On one he nearly picked off a pass thrown to the wrong spot. He also had a couple passes sent his way but out of bounds and got safety help on the game’s final play.
All in all, the vast majority of the Knights’ 38 completions went to slot receivers, tight ends or backs, meaning the outside cornerbacks didn’t get as much work.
By the numbers
USC Offensive personnel (Percent)
Two back, one tight end: 3
Two backs, no tight end: 3
One back, two tight ends: 43
One back, one tight end: 50
No back, one tight end: 1
Shotgun (Inc. Wildcat): 73
-While Nunez’ block on Cooper’s touchdown run rightfully got attention, a couple unsung linemen had key roles as well. Guard Will Sport wiped away two defenders trying to change direction as Cooper reversed field, and tackle Mike Matulis cleared away a linebacker downfield.
-Linebackers Larenz Bryant and Ernest Hawkins both got more work than last week.
-The Knights defense looked like one gearing up to stop a young running quarterback. They rarely took linebackers off the field for defensive backs and had eight or nine men in the box on around two of every five Gamecock snaps.