Josh Kendall

This is what South Carolina’s football team is doing best in 2018

As a .500 football team at the halfway point of the season, South Carolina isn’t excelling in a lot of areas, but the Gamecocks can take solace in their third down defense.

South Carolina (3-3 overall, 2-3 SEC) is second in the SEC and sixth in the nation in third down conversion percentage allowed (24.7 percent). The Gamecocks take on Tennessee (3-4, 1-3) on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Williams-Brice Stadium.

“Our staff has done a good job of coaching those things up week to week and spending a good amount of time on the practice field making sure our players have a good understanding of what we need to do to get off the field,” head coach Will Muschamp said.

South Carolina’s defense has faced 73 third down situations. Opponents have converted on 18 of those occasions. No team in the country has allowed fewer total conversions.

“We struggled with it last year, and we just wanted to fix it and I think we’re doing a pretty good job so far,” junior middle linebacker T.J. Brunson said. “It was a big emphasis this year. Just talking about it more on third down, making sure everyone knows where the sticks are and more focused on giving more effort to get off the field.”

Last year, the Gamecocks allowed opponents to convert on 39.8 percent of their third downs, which ranked 76th in the nation.

“It’s just the plays that coach Muschamp and (defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson) dial up. They do a great job,” senior Bryson Allen-Williams said. “They have a great defensive scheme and are doing a great job of putting us in position to make plays.”

The Volunteers offense has struggled on third down. Tennessee is 10th in the SEC in third down conversions at 37.5 percent.

Simple awareness has been the biggest key to South Carolina’s improvement this year, Brunson said. The Gamecocks coaching staff has even added a prop on the sideline, having a student assistant jump up and down holding a sign that reads “3rd down” on every third down.

“I don’t think we really pay attention to that, just see the sticks and know that it’s third down,” Brunson said. “Everybody is responsible. Everybody needs to know it’s third down.”

For their part, the Gamecocks coaches have used more defensive looks on third down this year, Muschamp said.

“I think we’ve done a nice job of mixing calls and mixing looks, whether it’s three-down or four-down (on the defensive line),” he said. “We’ve done a nice job of changing up looks so people can’t dial in and know what they are getting.”