Josh Kendall

Improving Gamecocks run defense faces new test with Bulldogs

This his how bad South Carolina’s rushing defense was the last two years: The Gamecocks allowed more rushing yards than all but three SEC teams in the first week of this season, and it marked considerable progress.

“They ran the ball 42 times for like 170 yards, something like that,” South Carolina safety D.J. Smith said. “I think that’s pretty good. I mean, I’m not a coach or a stat person, but I think that’s pretty decent.”

The Commodores specifically had 42 carries for 169 yards and averaged 4.02 yards per carry, which is more than 1 yard per carry less than the Gamecocks opponents averaged last year. South Carolina finished last in the SEC in rushing defense last year, giving up 217.4 yards per game.

The challenge for the Gamecocks run defense will increase this week against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs rushed for 239 yards in a 21-20 loss to South Alabama on Saturday. It was the third-highest total for SEC teams last week, and the most-concerning issue for South Carolina is that Mississippi State backup quarterback Damian Williams is a running threat.

Williams didn’t start last week, but he relieved starter Nick Fitzgerald and played most of the game, rushing for 93 yards. Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen declined to talk about what his quarterback rotation will look like this week, but it’s a safe bet South Carolina will see a steady diet of Williams.

Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur was no running threat, so a mobile quarterback will be a new test for South Carolina’s young defense under first-year head coach Will Muschamp. It’s a challenge the Gamecocks didn’t fare well against the last two seasons.

“It always creates the extra gap,” Muschamp said. “Those are always issues you have to deal with when you deal with a team that is willing to and committed to running the quarterback and they are. They can out-number you in the running game easily.”

South Carolina defensive end Dante Sawyer doesn’t believe he and his fellow ends need to be less aggressive, just more mindful against Mississippi State.

“Of course, it changes up what we have to do schematically on defense,” Sawyer said. “There are certain things we can’t do on the line as far as what rushes we can’t do. We just have to know we have to have containment on him at all times.”

While Williams is the greater running threat, Fitzgerald also can hurt South Carolina with his legs, Sawyer said. Texas A&M quarterback Kyler Murray (156 yards) and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (114 yards) did that last year.

“They run zone reads and a bunch of stuff like that so we have to be disciplined in what we do,” South Carolina linebacker T.J. Holloman said. “You can’t really account for the quarterback when he’s running. We just have to be very disciplined in containing him.”