South Carolina was supposed to power the second-year of its rebuilding project on the strength of its offense. Instead, the Gamecocks finished the regular season 8-4 almost in spite of an offense that many thought would be the best of head coach Will Muschamp’s six years as a head coach.
Under second-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, South Carolina finished the regular season 12th in the SEC in scoring (24.1 ppg) and total offense (340.2), and Roper has been under fire from the fan base since early in the season.
“I just think we need to work on the small things, the small details,” said sophomore Bryan Edwards, the team’s leading receiver. “Sometimes we get in the moment and lose sight of the small things, and it kills us. As we get more experience that’s going to come, just the small details.”
As the Gamecocks get ready to learn their bowl destination Sunday, we’ll take a look at three positives and three negatives about the USC offense.
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1. EVERY SKILL POSITION PLAYER IS RETURNING
That experience Edwards mentioned will mount in 2018. The Gamecocks lose offensive linemen Alan Knott and Cory Helms (and tight end Hayden Hurst and offensive lineman Zack Bailey if they decide to skip their final year of eligibility), but every other offensive contributor should return. That means South Carolina will have a third-year starter at quarterback in Jake Bentley to go along with the return of Deebo Samuel, who missed 75 percent of this season due to a broken leg. Every player with a carry also is expected back, although Hurst (7 carries, 37 yards) is a question mark.
2. THE FLORIDA GAME
The only time all season that South Carolina’s offense did damage against a decent defensive team came Nov. 11 in a 28-20 win over Florida. The Gators, who finished the regular season sixth in total defense, couldn’t keep the Gamecocks from amassing 220 yards on the ground and 249 yards through the air. South Carolina rushed 47 times and threw the ball 29 times in that game, which is the kind of play distribution that Muschamp favors and leads us to point No. 3.
3. COMPLEMENTARY FOOTBALL
South Carolina’s offense does not exist in a vacuum, and Roper’s willingness to work within the total team package that Muschamp preaches is one of the reasons the head coach likes him so much. Muschamp believes how and how quickly the Gamecocks move the ball is important because of how that affects the team’s defense and special teams. Fast-paced offenses, for example, are great when they work but very taxing on their team’s defense when they don’t. Roper’s offense has fit well, if not always efficiently, into how the head coach wants to play football.
Roper and Muschamp both believe that explosive plays are one of the most important aspects of offensive football, and the Gamecocks enter each game hoping to get eight or more explosive plays (which USC counts as runs of 15 yards or more or pass plays of 20 yards or more). South Carolina reached that goal once, with nine explosive plays in a 28-20 win against Florida. An inability to get yards in chunks hurt the Gamecocks especially because of their inability to maintain drives in any methodical fashion.
2. LOW MAINTENANCE
South Carolina averaged 5.5 yards per play, which ranks 11th in the SEC. That number is only sustainable if a team can avoid drive-killing mistakes. The Gamecocks could not. Throughout the season, Muschamp and South Carolina’s offensive players pointed to a play here or a play there that stopped a promising drive and kept the team from putting points on the board. Inexperience, lack of concentration and personnel juggling caused by injuries were among the reasons offered. Roper, like all of South Carolina’s assistant coaches, is off limits to the media during the season.
3. SLOW PROGRESS
While the program has been praised for its fast progress – moving from 3-9 in 2015 to 6-7 in 2016 to 8-4 so far this year, the offense hasn’t progressed in similar fashion. This is the third year Roper and Muschamp have teamed as offensive coordinator and head coach, and it was supposed to be the year that yielded better results. However, no member of the offense, starting with quarterback Jake Bentley whose completion percentage and yards per attempt dropped in his second year as a starter, made the type of jump that was expected in the second year of the system.