Gamecocks Looking to Finish the Job

The Gamecocks head to Nashville Saturday night to face the Vanderbilt Commodores. There will be some changes in the secondary and in coverages as the Gamecocks look to overcome the mistakes that have plagued the defense in its two losses to Auburn and Kentucky

Two weeks ago, the slogan around the South Carolina football team was ‘give fate a chance.' They did just that in a 35-21 upset over then-#1 Alabama. Last week the slogan was ‘the best is yet to come' according to head coach Steve Spurrier on his weekly call-in show prior to last week's game with Kentucky. After jumping out to a 28-10 lead against the Wildcats, the Gamecocks fell apart in a 31-28 loss leaving Gamecock fans hoping that the Alabama game was not the best the Gamecocks had to offer. If I were to have to come up with a slogan for Saturday night's match-up with Vanderbilt in Nashville based on what I've gathered from coaches and players this week it would easily be; ‘finish the job.'

"The coaches just got through telling them - preparation hasn't been our problem, finishing has," South Carolina assistant head coach Ellis Johnson said following Thursday's practice. "We've got to play four quarters - mentally and physically - focus on things, finish things, and correct things. It's just a puzzle why you would make a mistake on something that you've run three or four times, and make at it a time when you've already done it successfully."

Though Johnson's defense came under the most fire following the Kentucky loss - and deservedly so - the offense needs to finish as well. After putting 28 points on the board and amassing 387 yards in the first half, the Gamecock offense couldn't put a point on the board in the second half and only managed 85 yards of offense. Still, had the defense done a better job of getting off the field the offense may have been able to do more.

Facing a Vanderbilt offense that likes to run an option attack, if the Gamecock defense can't get off the field like the second half of the Kentucky game, the offense may have trouble just getting on the field period. The Gamecock defense has faced two option attacks this season - Furman and Auburn - and did very well against one and very bad against the other.

"We played it pretty well, if not extremely well, against Furman," Johnson said. "I know some of that was athleticism. (Then) bad against Auburn as far as the keys and fits. We started jumping out of things trying to play another guy's assignment and overplay things and that's one of the things you can't do against this scheme."

The Gamecocks limited the Paladin rushing attack to just 51 yards and no rushing touchdowns. Against Auburn it was the exact opposite as Cam Newton and Michael Dyer led a Tiger rushing attack that piled up 334 yards and three rushing touchdowns. Luckily for the Gamecocks, the Commodore rushing attack mirrors Furman moreso than Auburn.

"Auburn has a little different scheme as far as wide open and spread out, but Vandy's execution is very good and they know what they're doing with it," Johnson said.

Vanderbilt enters the game averaging nearly 153 rushing yards per game and nearly 163 passing yards a game. The rushing attack is led by a trio of quarterback Larry Smith and running backs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy. Norman leads the team in rushing with 350 yards and four touchdowns, Stacy has 280 yards and three touchdowns, and Smith has 147 yards and two touchdowns. The trio combines for 130 yards rushing per game and nine of their 10 rushing touchdowns. Because of that offensive style, the Gamecock defense hasn't been able to work on the passing defense as much as they would like.

"You can't put 80% of your practice time in pass defense because Vanderbilt because they're a really good option team - zone option, triple option - and right now we've got to get ready for Vanderbilt," Johnson said. "But we had some stuff we had to clean up too. We made a few personnel moves in that pass situation package, we've talked about some things we have to do a little more often in our pass coverage calls, and we've hopefully cleaned up the mistakes that have been made. They understood what they did, they just didn't do it right."

The personnel changes have revolved around the secondary. While there won't be much of a change in who starts the game, there will be a change in the rotation throughout the course of the game. Those changes will hopefully eliminate some of the confusion and giving up the big plays.

"We're going to keep Culliver at corner and not move him in and out to the nickel from base to dime coverage, we're going to let Akeem play the nickel, and keep those four deep guys intact," Johnson said. "What you get into is physically you see a guy that can really be a good player in that position, but the number of repetitions he's getting at it for technique and the fine points of it and some of the mental assignments of it and then not playing consistently. So we're going to try and move them around in a way that would keep the four-deep intact and substitute the guys on the lower level that have played down there a little bit more often. Hopefully that will help them stay consistent."

One of the most consistent players up front has been the play of defensive end Devin Taylor. Taylor will be one of the front four with the difficult assignment of keeping Smith in the pocket and containing that option attack.

"He's getting better and better and better," Johnson said. "Last year he showed up real quick in the first game and then sort of tailed off a little bit, but certainly he was good."

In that first game against N.C. State, Taylor forced a Tony Baker fumble on the first N.C. State play of the game that was recovered by Darian Stewart. That led to the only touchdown of the game, scored by Brian Maddox in a 7-3 Gamecock win. For the game, Taylor recorded six tackles - three for loss - one sack, two forced fumbles, and one blocked kick. For the season, Taylor finished with 28 tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, and one blocked kick.

With the graduation of Eric Norwood and Clifton Geathers leaving a year early, Taylor earned a starting spot across from Cliff Matthews. With Matthews getting most of the attention from the opposing offensive line, Taylor would be able to fly under the radar.

"This year he didn't have a good camp and we didn't see the Devin Taylor that we'd thought we'd see," Johnson said. "But all of a sudden he's just progressed each game. He's making a lot of big plays for us. Every game he's making some stand-out plays, but he's also playing very consistently."

Taylor enters the Vanderbilt game with 24 tackles, tied with defensive tackle Melvin Ingram for the team lead with 4.5 sacks, Leads the team in both tackles for loss and quarterback hurries (seven in each), and has deflected two passes.

"He's a young player with tremendous athleticism and great character," Johnson said. "You can't get a minus on him as far as detractions. He's just got all the things that you hope will one day make him a great player - great work habit and abilities. So we certainly hope he's going to be a great player and he works like that."

For the Gamecocks to come out with a victory Saturday night, they will have to break a seven-game SEC road losing streak.

"There's nothing about the road that's causing it in my opinion," Johnson said. "We travel well, we stay in the right places, and there's no distractions. When you come out and play well early you know you're prepared. It's just not finishing and getting things done consistently down the stretch."

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