Keys to victory against Tennessee
I. Score Touchdowns in the Red Zone
Coach Steve Spurrier was adamant in his weekly call-in show Thursday night about the offense's need to score touchdowns rather than settle for field goals. During the early half of the season, the Gamecocks had one of the better red zone scoring percentages in the nation while also scoring mostly touchdowns. That trend did not continue as USC has not scored a touchdown in the last six quarters. While the Gamecocks have capitalized on four of their five red zone opportunities in the last two games, only two of those scores have been touchdowns. They have also failed to reach the end zone on their last three red zone visits.
For the offense to play well inside the 20, the offensive line will need to be more consistent. As a team gets closer to the end zone and the field compresses, the throwing lanes become smaller and it becomes more important to successfully run the football. This makes it more important to play smart, avoid sacks, and keep the third downs makeable. The Gamecocks were able to move the ball at times against Vanderbilt, but they will need to avoid the nagging mistakes that cost them a week ago in order to beat the Vols.
II. Consistent Play on the Offensive Line
The offensive line had its worst performance of the Steve Spurrier era against Vanderbilt when they surrendered seven sacks and committed five false start penalties. Even with the lack of a number two receiving threat, the offense can be good enough to win if the line can just provide quarterback Chris Smelley time in the pocket and give the Gamecocks' two talented running backs some room to run. With Spurrier calling the plays and the defense playing as well as it has, this should allow Smelley to get comfortable in the pocket and not feel the need to force anything. If the Gamecocks can avoid beating themselves, they will be able to keep things balanced and get back to their winning ways.
III. Get Tennessee in Third and Longs
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix discussed the importance of getting Tennessee in third and long situations following Thursday's practice. Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge leads the SEC's No. 2 passing offense, throwing for 269 yards a game, and is aided by the SEC's best pass protecting line. The Tennessee offensive line has surrendered a mere two sacks on the entire season.
As good as the USC secondary has been on the season, they will not be able to stop the Vols passing attack without getting pressure on Ainge. In order to get pressure against a seemingly impenetrable offensive line, the defense will need to get Tennessee in obvious passing situations that would allow players like Eric Norwood, Casper Brinkley, and pass-rushing specialist Clifton Geathers the chance to pin their ears back and get after Ainge. With Tennessee likely looking to establish the run against what is considered the weakness of the USC defense, South Carolina will need to stop UT for short gains early in Saturday's contest.
IV. Get Better on Third Downs Offensively
Prior to the UNC game a big reason for USC's success was its stellar third down conversion rate. At the time, the Gamecocks ranked fourth in the SEC in that category and were converting almost 43 percent of their third down situations. Much like the negative turnaround the red zone offense experienced, they could not capitalize on their early third down success and have converted only 2 of their last 24 attempts. It goes without saying that a team cannot be successful with numbers like these. The reason for this once again goes back to the inconsistent offensive line play, something that will undoubtedly need to change for the Gamecocks down the stretch. If the offense can get positive yardage on first and second downs, they should generally get better on third downs (though it didn't work out like that in the second half at UNC).
V. Win the Special Teams Battle
The South Carolina coaching staff made a point to emphasize special teams play in practice this season, and it has paid off so far. The Gamecocks are No. 1 in the SEC in kickoff coverage, while Captain Munnerlyn is averaging 10.8 yards a punt return, and Chris Culliver is averaging 24.8 yards a kickoff return. Ryan Succop has not been quite as consistent as he was a season ago, but he is still one of the best kickers in the conference and may have the strongest leg.
In the past two seasons, special teams play has made a huge impact on the outcomes of the games between the two teams. In 2005 it was a 49 yard game-winning field goal by Josh Brown with just under three minutes to play that propelled the Gamecocks to their first win ever over Tennessee in Neyland Stadium. In the 2006 game it was a 65 yard Jonathan Hefney punt return to the USC five yard line in the fourth quarter that helped put the Gamecocks away.
Culliver and Munnerlyn are both due a return for touchdown, while the rest of the special teams have shown a knack for making the big play. The Gamecocks could use a "special" play or two to spring them to a huge victory that would put them right back in the thick of an extremely tight SEC East race.
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