Ron Morris

Morris: Future success depends on run game

Columbia, SC 11/14/09 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com ---South Carolina junior tailback No. 10 Brian Maddox tries to get past Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes on a third quarter run during the Gamecocks game against the Gators at Williams-Brice Stadium, Saturday, November 14, 2009.
Columbia, SC 11/14/09 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com ---South Carolina junior tailback No. 10 Brian Maddox tries to get past Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes on a third quarter run during the Gamecocks game against the Gators at Williams-Brice Stadium, Saturday, November 14, 2009.

Lost in the euphoria over South Carolina's thumping of Clemson five weeks ago was the hint of a change in Steve Spurrier's approach to offense. Spurrier has talked for five years about putting more emphasis on the running game, and his Gamecocks did just that in the victory against Clemson.

That was one game. Still, there was no doubting that changes were made to make USC a running offense, from using one series out of the WildCock set to using quarterback Stephen Garcia more in the read-option.

Now comes the real test to see whether Spurrier and USC have indeed changed, whether they truly believe it is important to establish a running game.

"That's always important. It's always important to play well (by running the ball) early," Spurrier said this week as his team prepared for today's Papajohns.com Bowl against Connecticut. "Always, always, every game."

Stop me if we have heard that before. In each of his five seasons, Spurrier has preached the importance of getting out of the SEC cellar in rushing. Yet USC has finished 12th in each of the past three seasons.

In 62 games at USC, Spurrier's teams have rushed for 200 or more yards five times, and three of those were against S.C. State (twice) and Florida Atlantic.

Blame a shaky offensive line if you want, or a lack of a big-time running back. More than anything, those numbers tell me there has not been a commitment to running the football.

The 2006 season proves my point. Spurrier was without a quarterback who could throw the ball following the suspension of Blake Mitchell. So, Spurrier turned to Syvelle Newton, primarily a runner, and USC eventually finished sixth in the SEC in rushing.

It was the kind of rushing attack - although different in style - Spurrier-coached teams produced in each of his first eight seasons at Florida, when balanced offenses fashioned championship teams. Then came a key change in Spurrier's offense. He went primarily to the shotgun formation in Florida's national championship victory against Florida State following the 1996 season.

From then on, the shotgun was more a part of Spurrier's arsenal. Naturally, he admits, the shotgun cuts down on a team's number of running options. The main rushing play out of the shotgun formation is the draw play, which utilizes pass-blocking technique by the offensive line.

The more Florida began to use the shotgun, the less-balanced an offense it became. That might be a simplistic way to look at it, but the numbers bear it out. Three of Spurrier's final four Florida teams finished 10th or 11th in the SEC in rushing.

At USC, other than in 2006, it has been more of the same. It got to the point in 2008 where it appeared the offensive line rarely used run-blocking techniques. There was no belief that USC could run the ball effectively.

Spurrier brought in offensive line coach Eric Wolford to change the mindset, and to some extent it worked. USC could at least run the ball when it needed to. Its 287 yards rushing against Florida Atlantic were the most in a game since 2001.

Then came the Clemson game. On its second series, Spurrier inserted Stephon Gilmore at quarterback and he directed USC on a seven-play, 60-yard scoring drive. Gilmore completed the only pass he threw for 39 yards and ran five times for 20 yards.

When Garcia returned for the next series, Spurrier had another surprise. Although USC had practiced using Garcia in the read-option, it seldom used it. Garcia eventually ran the ball 13 times for 56 yards. His 17 handoffs to Kenny Miles resulted in another 114 yards rushing.

All totaled, USC ran the ball 58 times, the second-most for a Spurrier-coached team. It was a new look for USC.

Today, we begin to see if that look was a one-game aberration or a part of USC's look of the future. USC receiver Moe Brown says the read-option is here to stay. Connecticut coach Randy Edsall says it is about Spurrier knowing what makes his team tick.

Brown says: "It's definitely part of the offense. It's something we were messing with during the spring. We tried to incorporate it more this whole season. Garcia was one of our top returning rushers last year, so he can definitely run the ball."

Edsall says: "Steve knows that he's got a pretty good defense, and knows if they can play pretty good defense and control the clock a little bit and throw it maybe not as much, it helps them to get a better chance to win."

Edsall also knows his team has one of the worse pass defenses in the country. It might be tempting for Spurrier and USC to come out throwing ... or maybe they are serious about establishing a running game.

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