No-passing zone

It's no surprise that a team coached by Steve Spurrier is leading the NCAA in a major passing category. You'd just assume it would be an offensive category, not a defensive category.

Right there it is in the latest NCAA statistics, though: Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks lead all major-college programs in pass defense, surrendering a paltry 145.9 yards per game. SC has allowed a mere 49.4 completion percentage with more interceptions (11) than passing touchdowns allowed (7).

By comparison, this Saturday's foe – the Tennessee Vols – rank 84th in pass defense. The Vols are allowing 249.0 yards per game, with a 58.2 completion percentage and far more touchdowns (13) than interceptions (5).

An assortment of factors contribute to the Gamecocks' success against the pass: They have a quality scheme. They have a potent pass rush (ranking third in the SEC with 18 sacks). They have exceptional athletes.

"It starts with talent," Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe says. "They have good corners, good safeties."

The Gamecocks also have a defensive coordinator, Tyrone Nix, who is liable to try just about anything during the course of a game.

"They have great schemes," Cutcliffe notes. "They'll put seven DBs in the game with four down linemen. They'll play six DBs with four down linemen and one linebacker. They'll play standard 4-3-4. They play odd fronts, even fronts."

Whatever front Carolina plays, it shows a knack for pressuring the opposing quarterback. Sophomore defensive end Eric Norwood ranks among the SEC leaders with five sacks through the first eight games, and he has plenty of help.

"They bother a lot of people with their protection system," Cutcliffe says. "The best way to play good pass defense is to have good talent in the secondary and hurry throws. If you're not hurrying throws in this day and time it's very difficult to stop people from throwing the football."

Fortunately for Tennessee, it ranks No. 1 nationally in pass protection, having allowed just two sacks through the first seven games. Cutcliffe hopes that trend continues Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

"The challenge," he says, "is to make sure our protection system is doing what it's supposed to do."

Even if Tennessee does a stellar job protecting quarterback Erik Ainge, however, Vol receivers may have trouble getting separation against Carolina's super-aggressive defensive backs.

"They cover you close," Cutcliffe notes. "They've been very successful with their scheme, which is multiplicity, secondary pressure, linebacker pressure, even fronts, odd fronts. They throw a lot of things at you. I've seen some of this in Coach Nix's past at Southern Mississippi and through the years.

"They present a lot of challenges. We cannot afford to give them anything."

In addition to the NCAA's top-ranked pass defense, the Gamecocks boast the SEC's second-ranked scoring defense. They allow just 16.6 points per game.

"Defensively, you look at them and they are the No. 2 scoring defense in this conference," Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer says. "With all of the scoring going on in this league, that's a real compliment to them."

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