Josh Kendall

Third down the first problem for South Carolina offense

There are plenty of questions surrounding South Carolina’s offense.

Why can’t the Gamecocks score more points?

Where’s the up-tempo offense fans heard so much about in the preseason?

Why is the team 107th in the nation in time of possession?

The answer to all those questions is ultimately the same: the Gamecocks stink on third down.

South Carolina is last in the SEC and 124th in the nation in third down conversion rate at 27.1 percent. It is last in the SEC and 126th in the nation in first downs overall with 15.8 per game.

“We have to stay on the field on third down,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “After the Vanderbilt and Mississippi State games, third down has been an issue for our offense. As much as anything, not being able to score points is about not being able to stay on the field.”

The Gamecocks opened the season 12-of-33 on third down against the Commodores and Bulldogs, a 36 percent success rate that’s not good but at least not fatal. In the last four games, though, the numbers have been downright abysmal. South Carolina has not converted more than three third downs in any of its last four games, and it is 11-of-52 (21 percent) overall through that stretch.

Muschamp’s postgame news conferences have developed a Groundhog Day feel on the subject.

“Bad on third down two weeks in a row.”

“Third down was an issue again.”

This week’s opponent, UMass (1-6) ranks 61st in the nation in opponent’s third down conversions. The Minutemen come to Williams-Brice Stadium for a noon game.

Forty of the Gamecocks 52 third downs in the last four games have fallen into the third-and-long category, meaning third-and-5 or longer. Eighteen of those have been third-and-10 or longer.

“We just have to execute. We have to convert,” running back A.J. Turner said. “We have to get those yards, no matter how many yards it is, whether it’s 2, 3, 5, 8, whatever it is, we’ve got to get it. We have to keep the offense on the field because that’s how you win games by scoring points.”

The Gamecocks are not pressing on third down, Turner insists.

“Regardless of the down and distance, we still have a job and that’s to get first downs and put consecutive first downs together to get a touchdown,” offensive tackle Mason Zandi said, “and we have to do that.”

South Carolina’s inability to sustain drives has made it impossible for offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to run the offensive pace he prefers, Muschamp said. Roper has not spoken to the media since the preseason.

“The up-tempo is working when you’re maintaining possessions,” Muschamp said. “We haven’t maintained possessions. We had more tempo in the first two ball games because we were able to stay on the field longer. Our whole idea for the tempo is to pick our spots when we want to be able to go fast and when we need to go fast. Certainly sustaining drives longer and staying on the field longer is going to help us do that more.”

Now it’s just a question of when, or if, that’s going to happen.

Game Info

Who: UMass (1-6)

at South Carolina (2-4)

When: Noon, Saturday

Where: Williams-Brice Stadium

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 107.5 FM

Line: USC by 20