Nobody wants to hear it, and nobody wants to come close to embracing it.
As much as South Carolina’s defense continues to struggle, it is improving – but not in the way the Gamecocks need it to. And not quickly enough to think it will turn around enough to reverse what’s shaping up to be a miserable season.
“It’s frustrating, but I know we have young guys out on the perimeter,” sighed linebacker Skai Moore, after another afternoon of leading the Gamecocks in tackles and not getting a victory. “Hopefully we’ll make the adjustments and get it right.”
The players and coach Steve Spurrier have said they believe in co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke’s system – preventing big plays by leaving the middle of the field open, and depending on a pass-rush to take away the looks to the middle. It’s worked a couple of times, and it hasn’t worked a whole lot of times.
Overall, the results are OK. The Gamecocks have pitched three second-half shutouts in four games. They held Missouri to seven points in the second half on Saturday. That touchdown came because USC finally broke after Lorenzo Nunez threw his third interception of the quarter and the Tigers started on the 31-yard line.
The mind-boggling thing is how USC seems content and powerless to stop the same plays. The Gamecocks take away the deep passes and are gashed by the short ones. They stop the run one time and are sliced by it the next four.
“We were off on them,” Hoke said of his run fits. “Guys weren’t getting to their gap as cleanly as they needed to. And it was disappointing at the end of the game, in eight-man fronts, we weren’t as clean in our run fits either. It seems to be a little bit of an issue for us at times, and at unfortunate times.”
The Gamecocks adjusted to the run after a rough second quarter, but then quarterback Drew Lock started doing what every other QB USC has faced has done. Sometimes he never had to look to another receiver – the right side of the field was open all day.
Lock, in his first start, completed 21 of 28 passes. The last two SEC quarterbacks USC has faced have missed a combined eight throws for a completion percentage of 84.9 percent. That would be hard to repeat against air.
Hoke correctly pointed out that Lock’s big plays were limited (his long was 17 yards). But it comes back to the same principle – if it still ends in a score, how effective is it?
“We went after him a few times early, got him to throw a couple of bad ones,” Hoke said. “We just couldn’t get the third down in the situations that we wanted enough.”
Again, the defense by overall numbers is improving. It doesn’t matter if a team gets 700 yards in between the goal lines as long as it doesn’t cross them. The Gamecocks have done a decent job of keeping themselves in the game by preventing scores.
They also know the dangers of trying to un-learn and re-learn a new defensive system mid-season, as evidenced by last year’s 3-4 disaster. They swear it’s them, not Hoke’s alignment, and they simply have to do better.
USC is young in the secondary and has limited talent up front. It’s asking a lot to have Moore and his fellow linebackers cover so much; like the offense has discovered, somebody besides an established star has to make a play. Right now, nobody is.
They’re inching closer, getting better a tiny piece at a time. There are at least seven games to play.
But it’s very hard to win a mile race if you’re still rounding the first turn and the rest of the pack – or the season – is halfway home.
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