Offensive line searching for answers

Upon further review, sixth ranked South Carolina's offense and offensive line are adequate, even very efficient. The Gamecocks have been good enough to be ranked in everyone's Top Ten, hold first place in the SEC East and win six of seven games so far. But for USC Head Coach Steve Spurrier, the offense - and in particular the line - has not been good enough.

And the line won't be good enough to win the games ahead without showing marked improvement in the coming weeks.

Spurrier continues to tinker with his offensive line, especially his two guard spots. At times Spurrier has lamented the lack of blocking and lack of scoring from his Gamecocks "Cock & Fire" offense that was supposed to score somewhat like his Florida squads. On Saturday, 6-1 South Carolina will play a 3-3 Vanderbilt team similar in many offensive statistics but sitting well below the Gamecocks where it counts, the SEC East standings.

Changes are coming. "We'll probably have a new guard or two in there (Saturday), maybe one, maybe two. The guard play wasn't all that great last week. Some of the other players weren't all that great either. (It) wasn't just one guy," said Spurrier Tuesday. "Overall our line didn't play hopefully as well as we need to in the future. It's a team sport; Don't want to point the fingers at anybody."

In the 21-15 win last Saturday over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, fingers were pointed at the second half deficiencies as much as praise for previous USC performances leading the Gamecocks to be ranked #8 in the coaches' poll and at #6 in the AP poll. After three touchdown drives in the first half against UNC, South Carolina had just one second half scoring opportunity, a 48 yard field goal attempt by Ryan Succop with 41 seconds left to put the game out of reach, which hit the right upright. Spurrier called it the worst half of offense this season. UNC fans grumbled they "lost" the game rather than USC "won" the game, and Coach Spurrier said in the post game interview that "They stopped us up front. We can't budge people right now."

USC got its biggest first half lead of the season against the Tar Heels but could not convert 3rd and 1 opportunities in the second half. The offensive line's performance for the entire season has not been praise worthy overall. "We're just not blocking very well... We do get shoved backwards too much in pass protection," said Spurrier.

But Carolina is obviously scoring enough to win because of what Spurrier pointed out after the game at Chapel Hill – "Touchdowns instead of field goals I guess proved to be the difference for us." The same goes for the whole season.

"We're scoring touchdowns instead of kicking a bunch of field goals. If we're kicking field goals, what, we'd be, 2-4 now? 3-3? We've maximized our chances." Carolina's Succop has attempted only ten field goals through seven games this season, the third fewest in the SEC. There is a pattern: Three touchdown drives versus UNC is reminiscent of the 2005 win over Arkansas in Fayetteville, Spurrier's first season at USC. In that game USC had just two legitimate chances to score at all - one opportunity came after an interception inside the Razorbacks' 40 yard line in the second half, when Blake Mitchell threw a TD pass to Kenny McKinley on the next play and the defense held on for a 14-10 win in a game controlled by Arkansas.

This season USC is scoring on 88% of its red zone trips (23-26) and has scored touchdowns 69% of the time (18-26). USC ranks eighth in the SEC in red zone offense efficiency but fourth in red zone touchdown efficiency.

Vanderbilt averages 5 points less per game than USC, gives up four more points per game, has the same third down conversion rate (38%) as USC and averages 20 more yards on the ground per game than Carolina. The big difference is basic: Carolina gets into the end zone more often when it counts.

This season 6-7, 325 pound right tackle Justin Sorenson has been a consistent player on the offensive line, starting each game and combining with left tckle Jamon Meredith, center Web Brown and tight end Andy Boyd to lead the offense into the end zone.

Spurrier still has informed the offense, particularly the line, it must improve its play.

Sorenson acknowledges that improvement is needed to keep winning.

"We just need guys to step up and make the commitment, to step up and say, ‘All right, I'm gonna make the commitment every week, learn my plays, go out there and play as hard as I can and try to be as successful as we can, " said Sorenson.

Even the defense, tops in the nation in pass defense going into the UNC game and now third, was "very fortunate" last Saturday according to Spurrier, who recalled two potential touchdown passes slipping off the fingers of Tar Heel receivers.

"We are extremely thankful and fortunate," to beat North Carolina Spurrier said. "We certainly do not have a bunch of cocky players around here. We do not. We have a bunch of players that realize that we could lose to anybody we play if we don't improve our play real soon." That includes Vanderbilt, according to Spurrier and his players, a squad that has not beaten USC since the Gamecocks winless 1999 campaign. Spurrier has never lost to the Commodores, winning twice while at Duke, 10 times at Florida and twice with the Gamecocks.

Spurrier says he will give senior Blake Mitchell a chance to play quarterback against Vanderbilt after sitting down in the LSU game four games ago. Spurrier has again called another week of "open tryouts" for playing time on the offensive line. That will not affect Sorenson much.

"I've played beside all three of our right guards. I've played significant time with all three of them so I'm comfortable with any of them that's in there beside me," said the Vancouver Island, B.C. Canada native. Sorenson says he tries to be a vocal leader. "I try to be a leader, try and help the younger guys with the plays, and try to encourage the people to step up and play as well as they can."

"We are still winning, and some of them have been ugly, but if we want to keep winning we are going to have to play a lot better than that," said the junior with 13 starts, one less than senior Brown and 11 less than the junior Meredeth.

"We know it (winning) is not going to continue unless we can play a lot better these last five games," said Spurrier, who noted a different reaction to the sixth win of the season than from past USC squads and their fans.

"In the history of South Carolina any time they got bowl-eligible, they had a party down in Five Points, everybody was celebrating, ‘Hey, we're bowl eligible.' There would be hugging and laughing and high fiving in the locker room," said Spurrier. "So there was none of that, that's for sure. We were disappointed in our performance in the second half (against UNC)."

"There was no big celebration becoming bowl eligible Saturday, probably the first time in school history. Don't know if it was planned or not. Maybe it was, because our goals are a lot higher than six wins," said the coach who won a National Championship at Florida in 1996.

With games at Tennessee and Arkansas followed by visits from Florida and Clemson looming after the upset-minded Commodores, Spurrier sees the need for lots of improvement.

"We understand we need to play a whole bunch better, coach better, if we want to come close or even have a chance at achieving all of our goals. And all of our goals are still out there after seven weeks. We're in position, if we can really start playing a whole bunch better, coaching better." Spurrier stops there as if he is considering what he said to his team in the beginning of the season: challenge for the SEC East title, challenge for the SEC Championship, and that means USC challenges for...

No National Championships talk yet. An efficient and effective offense has to improve first. The rest of the schedule demands much better play for the celebrations Spurrier has envisioned for USC since he arrived in 2005 and forced college football fans around the country to consistently decide to "further review" the Carolina football program.

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