'They whipped us up front': USC run game struggles
Only one team in the Southeastern Conference runs the ball less than South Carolina, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Gamecocks are calling fewer running plays than all but one team in their league.
The reason for that is a little complicated, and it also plays a part in explaining one of the more inexplicable facts of South Carolina’s season so far, which is how sophomore running back Ty’Son Williams can go from zero carries in the first week to the team’s leading rusher in the second week and then back to zero carries in the third week.
It all traces back to run-pass option plays, which are becoming the foundation of the Gamecocks offense. With an RPO, South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley goes to the line of scrimmage with a run and a pass play called. The default setting is the run play, but Bentley’s responsibility is to switch to the passing play if he sees a particular look from the defense.
“We had three explosive plays (against Kentucky) off RPOs where we had runs called and would end up throwing the football,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “That’s part of who we are right now because we don’t really have legs at the quarterback situation, so when you get into a bad box, you are going to throw the ball.”
A “bad box” is defined as any defensive alignment that includes an overload of players in the area near the line of scrimmage. One of the RPOs that Bentley changed to a pass was the first play of the game against the Wildcats, a 68-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel.
South Carolina’s reliance on RPOs and the number of times Bentley has switched from the R to P is one of the reasons a coach who values the running game as much as Muschamp does can end up running it such a small percentage of the time. For the season, the Gamecocks have run the ball 75 times and thrown it 100 times. (The team’s official statistics list 81 runs and 94 passes. The disparity comes from the fact that Bentley scrambled away from pressure for gains six times.)
“We just weren’t efficient with our carries. We got some run plays called,” sophomore running back A.J. Turner said Saturday night after the Gamecocks rushed for 54 yards in a 23-13 loss to Kentucky. “We just have to be more efficient and do everything we can to get more yards.”
The 184-pound Turner was stopped on consecutive third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 attempts in the third quarter against Kentucky while the 215-pound Williams and 220-pound Rico Dowdle, the team’s starter in the first three games, watched from the sideline.
The Gamecocks intended to get Williams some carries against the Wildcats one week after he had 14 carries for 78 yards against Missouri.
“When Ty’Son Williams was in there, we had runs called and we had bad box situations and we are throwing the ball to the perimeter,” Muschamp said. “Those are things we need to continue to explore. We need to narrow down what we do well in the run game and be able to block multiple fronts within that.”
The Gamecocks had three running schemes in the plan against Kentucky, Muschamp said, inside zone, counter and power plays. The offensive line didn’t make much room for any of the three.
“They whipped us up front, extremely disappointed in that,” Muschamp said. “Didn’t feel like we could get it going in the second half, and we tried to pick up the tempo a little bit offensively and start throwing the football.”
The Gamecocks are 13th in the SEC and 120th in the nation in rushing attempts with 27 per game. They are 13th in the SEC and 123rd in the nation in rushing production with 85.7 yards per game on the ground.
“The key stat (against Kentucky), I told the players all week and after the game, was rushing yards,” Muschamp said. “If we’re able to run the ball and stop the run, we’ll win the game, and we were unable to do that.”
Run vs. Pass
USC play distribution vs. Kentucky:
Third and short
Who: USC (2-1) vs. Louisiana Tech (2-1)
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 107.5 FM