Gamecocks hoping for defensive struggle
Call it any football cliché you want, but 15th ranked South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier's game plan to beat Tennessee Saturday night in Knoxville is not taken from the "Fun 'n Gun" Florida days or even the new "Cock 'n Fire" Carolina offense. It probably has the Lou Holtz stamp of approval.
"Hopefully we can get in a good, close, tight game and try to find a way to win," said Spurrier Tuesday as he tried to forget the feeble offensive performance by his Gamecocks in last Saturday's 17-6 loss to Vanderbilt.
"We are not a great, explosive offensive team, so if we get in a scoring match," Spurrier paused, "We're not very good in those situations."
The Gamecocks have always had trouble scoring in Knoxville, never totaling more than 21 points there while going 1-12 overall on the checkerboard field, and are 1-6 there since joining the SEC. Four of the last five Spurrier coached Florida squads playing at Neyland Stadium scored more than 27 points to win those four games.
For the last six quarters USC has scored zero touchdowns and has netted just two Ryan Succop field goals. Sounds more like the Lou Holtz days, but USC at least scored a touchdown in Knoxville during Holtz' winless 1999 season, using three quarterbacks.
Spurrier ticked off the necessary offensive improvements for Carolina to win: improve on the abysmal matching 1-12 third down conversations in each of the last two games, block better on offense, and not give up seven sacks like against Vanderbilt last week.
"Hopefully we can run the ball better and get into a low scoring game with Tennessee Saturday night."
USC averages just 115 yards per game on the ground. The Gamecocks gained few yards when trying to trim the clock in the second half against North Carolina while protecting a shrinking halftime lead. Spurrier said it seemed the thing to do against Vanderbilt was pass – but an interception on the first offensive series, a fumble on the second and a short punt later all led to Commodore scores and a 17-0 deficit. A deficient passing game was a big part of the Vanderbilt loss and one thing that must improve.
Carolina ranks near the bottom of all NCAA Division I schools in giving up sacks, 26 in 8 games, but Spurrier says the fault does not lie with just the offensive line. "We're not asking for perfect protection. (The) quarterbacks at times need to make some quicker decisions back there. You can't stay back there too long."
"It's not just all the line," said Spurrier. "Our quarterbacks sometimes have to be a little quicker with the ball."
The Volunteers may need a program to identify the USC quarterback and his linemen on Saturday night. Spurrier has had "open tryouts" often during the season for both guard positions, and USC has played at least five different guards in games. He indicates Saturday the Gamecocks may use all three quarterbacks who have played this season – four game starter and redshirt freshman Chris Smelley, fifth year senior Blake Mitchell, and even redshirt sophomore Tommy Beecher who last saw game action against South Carolina State on September 15.
So if the Gamecocks will "not probably roll out 500 yards (in offense) anytime soon," according to Spurrier, the Head Coach and play caller, how will they beat Tennessee? Play great defense. Keep the score down. Get a "big play" on special teams?
USC's improving special teams may well need to score against Tennessee Saturday for Carolina to win. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had two fine punt returns last Saturday, including a 46 yarder to set up USC inside the Vanderbilt 20, but penalties, mistakes and poor execution by the offense led to a field goal instead of a momentum swinging touchdown just before the half.
The last time South Carolina returned a punt for a touchdown was Chavez Donnings' 73 yard ramble against Florida in 2003. Tennessee gave up an 83 yard punt return for a TD to Florida's Brandon James earlier this season, and surrendered a 99 yard kickoff return TD to Georgia's Thomas Brown last season. USC's last kickoff return for a TD? Mathew Thomas and his 95 yard scoring run against Virginia in 2002.
Despite the struggles, Spurrier sees some hope for an offense that hasn't had a big play all year. "We can take care of the ball a lot better, and hit some balls here and there. That's what we've gotta try to do."
Overall, Spurrier is upbeat about the 6-2 Gamecocks, who are tied for the SEC East lead. He points out this team has never been expected to be his best at Carolina. He also stated that the third year of a college football program usually is the worst. Spurrier gives, by example, 1-7 Notre Dame, now in the third year of Coach Charlie Weiss' tenure.
There is more reason for hope despite the offensive woes. Spurrier remembers his first season, 2005, when the offense was "sorry" and the team was "very fortunate" to win several games, according to Spurrier. Yet Carolina was opportunistic, got turnovers and converted their few scoring opportunities in each game to support a stingy defense and claim a 7-4 regular season mark.
"We were about like this in '05, to tell you the truth. We were about ninth in the conference (in offense), right where we are now, struggling along, trying to make some things happen here and there. Still, it comes down to blocking and playmakers."
Carolina beat Tennessee and Arkansas on the road and then Florida at home in consecutive weeks in 2005. "Obviously we were big underdogs in every game (in 2005). So it worked out." Can it "work out" again?
This season Spurrier said, "We believe we have a chance. But we've gotta ‘one-game-at-a–time-it', get some breaks, not beat ourselves, and play with a lot more effort and smarts than obviously we did last week, especially on offense."
Tennessee is a disappointing 4-3, 2-2 in the SEC after the 41-17 loss to Alabama. Other losses were to highly ranked California and nemesis Florida, now in the top 15.
The Vols average 147 yards per game on the ground, but the passing of Senior quarterback Erik Ainge keys the offense. Ainge hits on 66% of his passes for 257 yards per game. Yards on the ground come from three tailbacks; Junior Arian Foster (89 yards per game) freshman Montario Hardesty (46 yards per game) and Sophomore LeMarcus Coker (25 yards per game). Hardesty was not used against Alabama and was reportedly visibly upset when leaving the field.
While Tennessee fans may talk about Coach Phillip Fulmer's potential replacement, Carolina fans speak proudly of the 16-15 win in Knoxville in 2005, USC's only victory over Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. In 2003 Holtz' Gamecock squad played in Carolina's only overtime game in history, bowing 23-20, but scoring the most USC points in Knoxville since the 56-21 shellacking by the Vols in 1995 against Brad Scott's second USC squad. The worst loss at Neyland Stadium was the 55-3 pasting in the snow flurries and sleet of Sparky Woods' last USC team.
But this week Carolina fans and Spurrier's squad will think only of the 16-15 win in 2005 and all the improvements needed to have a chance to win Saturday night. "For us to win we need to try to win another 16-12 game if we can, or 21-15, something like that," said Spurrier.
"We've got to somehow or another get our confidence back and get excited about playing Tennessee this week."
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