After having to rely on defense to win football games for several years now, the South Carolina Gamecocks finally have an offense that they can trust to win games. There is only one problem though; the defense is now the liability. After yet another uninspired second half performance from the South Carolina defense almost allowed a 1-3 Kentucky Wildcats team to knock off the No. 13 Gamecocks at home, some serious questions have to start being asked of a unit that, for the last few years, has been the strength of this Gamecock team and one of the better units in the Southeastern Conference.
South Carolina exploded out of the gates again this week, as they have been wont to do this year. It only took the Gamecocks four plays on their opening drive of the game to find the endzone, on a 62-yard Connor Shaw-Damiere Byrd connection. After the Wildcats had a 5-play 30-yard drive snuffed out, the Gamecocks went back to work, putting together a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 22-yard touchdown run by the SEC’s leading rusher, Mike Davis.
Clinical. A Kentucky team that ranked in the bottom of conference in almost every major statistical offensive category surely would not be able to keep up with a Gamecock offense firing on all cylinders.
Following a quick three-and-out, South Carolina marched down the field again and Davis punched in his eighth rushing touchdown this year, this time from a yard out. Davis would finish the game with 106 yards on 21 carries.
The Wildcats responded with a tremendous 14-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a Raymond Sanders touchdown run. Still down 21-7, Kentucky was showing some life, as they forced the lone punt of the game for the Gamecocks on the ensuing possession. The defense responded well, forcing another three-and-out and setting up the offense for another scoring opportunity. This time, it was Freshman Elliot Fry getting on the score sheet, as he connected on a 40-yard field goal, his longest of the season until he kicked a 41-yarder on the Gamecocks first possession of the second half.
With a 24-7 lead at the half, there was nothing to complain about, as the defense had held Kentucky to 116 total yards in the first half, and the offense could do no wrong. Unfortunately, the Gamecocks again showed an inability to close out games, as they let Kentucky—as they did with North Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Central Florida—get back into the game.
The offense continued its success in the second half. Aside from the last possession of the game, in which the Gamecocks were in victory formation, the first half punt was the only drive on which they did not score. Connor Shaw was remarkable and added another stellar performance to his resume against Kentucky, as he finished 17-20 for 262, a touchdown, and the all-important statistic, no interceptions. Shaw did not throw an incompletion after the Gamecocks’ second possession of the game, and he has now thrown 96 passes this season without an interception (per Scott Hood – Gamecockcentral).
Coach Steve Spurrier admitted after the game that this might be the only time that one of his teams had scored on every possession except for one and almost lost the game. The defense gave up three touchdowns in the last 20 minutes of play, two of which were scored at the end of a 75-yard and an 81-yard drive. The other Wildcat touchdown was set up by the only special-teams gaffe of the day; a Bruce Ellington fumble on what looked to be an otherwise impressive return. For an offense that ranked near the bottom of the SEC in most offensive categories, it was shockingly bad. Immediately after the game, Spurrier commented on his teams’ defensive performance, saying that the Gamecocks made a supposedly abysmal Kentucky offense look like the Green Bay Packers.
Whatever the issue is with finishing games, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward needs to figure it out soon. As the Gamecocks gear up for a three-game road stretch, the players know that whatever is causing them to be so woefully inefficient late in games, will cost them on the road in the SEC. At home, a prolific offense and home-field advantage can help cover some of these shortcomings. When the Gamecocks travel to Arkansas this Saturday, where they are only 2-8 since 1992, they cannot afford to give up massive amounts of points late if they want to continue winning games.
The upside for South Carolina is that, despite making close games out of what should be blowouts, they are 4-1 and very healthy—whatever problem Jadaveon Clowney had with his ribs that held him out of action on Saturday is not expected to prevent him from playing this weekend—heading into the tough part of their schedule.
Whether it is an issue of focus, effort, or personnel, the HBC is anticipating some changes this week on the defensive side of the ball. If the offense continues to perform as well as they have all year, with Connor Shaw—who is playing out of his mind—at the helm, the Gamecocks should at least be in a position to win the remainder of their games. Whether they will or not, is now up to the defense.