Josh Kendall

Nine games into season, Gamecocks still can’t tackle

For four years at Florida, Will Muschamp tried to build an offensive football team capable of imposing its will on an opponent on the ground. On Saturday, he faced that team.

South Carolina built a 17-point lead in The Swamp only to see the No. 19 Gators chase it down from behind on the strength of a dominating ground game that finished with 367 rushing yards in a 35-31 Florida victory. It was the ninth-most rushing yards surrendered by the Gamecocks (5-4 overall, 4-4 SEC) since at least 1962, the last season for which complete records are kept.

“Can’t stop the run, going to have a hard time winning,” said Muschamp, who was fired after four years at Florida and is now 12-12 in SEC games in his third year as South Carolina’s head coach. “Got whipped up front, didn’t tackle. It was very, very frustrating.”

More so because it’s exactly the kind of football Muschamp tried to play for so long with the Gators.

“I thought we needed to have success (on the ground), and I thought we could,” first-year Florida head coach Dan Mullen said. “I love to run the ball. If we can run the ball, it opens up our whole offense.”

The Gators (7-3, 5-3) ran for 238 yards after halftime, averaging 6.4 yards per carry in the final 30 minutes. Florida finished with 528 total yards one week after Ole Miss gained 616 yards against South Carolina. It’s the third-most yards the Gamecocks have surrendered in back-to-back games and just the fifth time in school history they have allowed back-to-back opponents more than 500 yards.

“We got whipped up front. Let’s call it like it is,” Muschamp said.

The Gamecocks played the game without defensive linemen Bryson Allen-Williams and Aaron Sterling and without four of their top six safeties due to injury, but Muschamp refused to lay the blame there.

“I think missed tackles were the biggest issue I saw,” he said. “I thought too many times we were getting pushed around and not winning our one-on-ones. At the end of the day, guys have got to tackle. It’s pretty much a reflection of where we’ve been.”

South Carolina entered the game 12th in the SEC and 86th in the nation against the run.

“Those were some big (running backs) and big guys you have to put a body on them and run your feet,” South Carolina linebacker T.J. Brunson said. “You can’t cut tackle those guys. We knew what they were going to do. It just came down to tackling and everyone doing their job.”

South Carolina built a 31-14 lead with 4:41 left in the third quarter when Rico Dowdle scored on a 4-yard run, but the Gamecocks totaled only 29 yards on their three possessions after that score. Five of South Carolina’s six second half possessions resulted in 17 or fewer yards, but the Gamecocks said that’s not because they got conservative after building a big lead.

“We didn’t change the mindset at all,” Muschamp said.

The Gamecocks had 386 total yards. Junior running back A.J. Turner had a season-high 81 yards. Deebo Samuel had four catches for 120 yards, including a career-high 89-yard gain, and quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 239 yards and his first two career touchdowns against the Gators.

“We had some good plays called (in the second half),” Bentley said. “We just have to be better executing. All of us have to be better late in the games and find a way to win.”

In order to do that, the Gamecocks are going to have to figure out how to improve their tackling.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s part of the game,” Brunson said. “I think guys are starting to understand the importance of it, how just finishing the tackle can keep big plays from happening.”

The problem is, the final conference game of the season is too late to be figuring that out.