Offensive struggles haunt Gamecocks

When Steve Spurrier took over as Head Coach for the Gamecocks, many wondered how long it would take before fans would see the Spurrier offense that fueled his dynamic Florida squads that dominated the SEC for 12 years. Now two and a half years into the Spurrier era, the pieces for that offense are not quite in place yet, handcuffing Spurrier's play calling, and in turn, his offense.

The Gamecocks' offensive performance against Vanderbilt was a continuation of their second half struggles in Chapel Hill last week. The inconsistent offense could only muster two field goals as they were held out of the end zone for the sixth consecutive quarter.

The inept play of the offensive line played a big part in the Gamecock' offensive woes. The unit surrendered 7 sacks and had five false starts — something that was "amazing" eight games into the season, according to Spurrier. The sacks and false starts killed multiple once-promising drives and always seemed to come at the worst possible time for the Gamecocks. Late in the second quarter, with the Gamecocks down 17, they started on their own 1 yard line. With quarterback Chris Smelley beginning to heat up, he completed his fourth pass in a row on a 26 yard strike down the seam of the zone defense to tight end Andy Boyd. With USC finally building momentum and with a first down on the Vandy 18 yard line, Commodore defender Patrick Benoist burst into the backfield, causing a drive-stalling, momentum ending sack. South Carolina would settle for their first field goal of the day.

The inopportune mistakes continued in the second half. The Gamecocks' once again drove into Vanderbilt territory to the 26 yard line late in the third quarter, only to be sacked on second down. Two plays later Smelley was intercepted on an underthrown ball in the end zone by South Carolina-native D.J. Moore.

Lastly, the final two sacks were as costly as the first five and came when it appeared the defense had made a momentum-changing play. After Eric Norwood recovered a Mackenzi Adams' fumble, the Gamecock offense got the ball back with just under eight minutes to go and a last chance to make two drives for the win. But quarterback Blake Mitchell was sacked on second and third downs as USC was forced to punt sealing the Commodore victory.

The poor outing has the offensive line feeling the pressure, according to starting center Web Brown. "It's all on us, and that's something that we try to take pride in - that our teammates are counting on us. But you go out and have a day like today and you feel like you let your teammates down a bit."

Despite the offensive line struggles, they were not the only thing holding back the offense. A lack of balance also contributed to the 282 yard offensive performance. The Gamecocks rushed for just 26 yards on 22 carries. South Carolina's impressive backfield duo of Cory Boyd and Mike Davis received a combined 11 carries on the day. Boyd was one of the few offensive players who seemed to be playing with a sense of urgency for the entire game. Despite a costly first quarter fumble, Boyd spent much of the day trying to fire his teammates up and led the team with five receptions for 55 yards while also adding another hard-earned 49 yards on the ground.

While it's obvious South Carolina was throwing the ball because they were playing from behind all day, Spurrier questioned his decision to abandon the running game after the loss, noting how well the defense played as they held the Commodores scoreless for the final three quarters.

With the offensive line already struggling, the poor run-pass balance did them no favors as the Vanderbilt defense was able to pin their ears back and attack the offense on zone blitzes all day.

With the offense facing long yardage on most of their third downs, they continued a trend started against UNC and could not seem to move the chains. After a very good first half of the season on third down plays, the Gamecocks converted a measly 1 of 12 opportunities against the Commodores.

With Mitchell splitting time with Smelley for the first time since the LSU game, neither could find a rhythm. "Today it didn't really matter who played quarterback," acknowledged Spurrier. "They both had their ups and downs. They both had pressure on them." The two players combined to complete 23 of 42 passes for 256 yards, but also had three costly interceptions on the day.

Both players, however, maintained the quarterback rotation did not affect their play.

"Neither of us could get it going," said the starter, Smelley. "Coach Spurrier was trying to get one of us to spark the offense and band together."

Mitchell did not believe the swapping hurt him either. He simply wished he had played better in his opportunities and says he will be ready if called upon again. "Whatever happens, it's the coach's decision. If he does call me to play, I will be prepared."

The offense's six quarter, touchdown-less struggles beg the obvious question: Where do they go from here?"

Once again the Gamecocks found themselves completing more passes to the backs and tight ends than their wide receivers down field. Kenny McKinley was dynamic as always, but while Dion Lecorn was solid with two receptions, he made a freshman-mistake, staying on the field when he was not supposed to on a fourth and short. The Gamecocks once again had to settle for a field goal. The offense still lacks a number two receiver who can consistently get open behind McKinley, which would go a long way towards the Gamecocks improving offensively down the stretch.

At 6-2 on the season, the Gamecocks are still very much in the jumbled SEC East race. While the loss was "crushing," according to McKinley, who caught 4 passes for 79 yards, the Gamecocks will have to put the loss behind them quickly and simply go forward with the season. The Gamecocks still control their own destiny, and as wild as this college football season has been, crazier things have happened than the Gamecocks winning out. They showed in the 2005 season they are capable of beating Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida in the same season.

According to McKinley, Spurrier has expressed the importance of getting better as the season goes on. "The offense has to get better. We have to stick in there," said the six-foot junior. "Coach Spurrier will get a plan together and put some people out there that want to play. Everybody needs to step up."

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