It was more than a loss in Lexington versus Kentucky. It was a culmination of just how bad the Gamecocks season has been thus far.
It was a loss I correctly predicted, and to those who’ve been following the team this year, and previous ones, it should have been anything but a surprise.
As I sat and watched Alvin Dupree, tip, intercept, and return Dylan Thompson’s pass back for a touchdown to seal a Wildcats upset victory with 2:29 remaining, I couldn’t help but laugh. Fans were furious and social media blew up: “We just lost to Kentucky!” “Bench Dylan Thompson!” For who, a backup quarterback that Steve Spurrier has absolutely no confidence in? My response was simple: You guys didn’t see this loss coming? …Because I sure did.
Kentucky is a much improved team this season. Mark Stoops has recruited hard, and has his players playing fast. Anyone that watched the Wildcats take the Gators into triple overtime in the Swamp had to come away impressed.
The Gamecocks entered the 2014-2015 season ranked preseason #9 and with good reason. Yes, Conor Shaw was gone, as well as Bruce Ellington, but the entire offensive line returned, as did all three running backs, and the rest of the tight ends and receivers. Dylan Thompson had starting experience before. Remember November 24, 2012, when Thompson led the Gamecocks to a 27-17 win in Death Valley against Clemson while throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns?
Unfortunately, there’s also the Dylan Thompson who couldn’t move the ball on Missouri last season, completing just 55 percent of his passes for no touchdowns and one interception, until Conor Shaw relieved him and pulled out the miraculous win.
This season, the Gamecocks have seen both the Clemson and Missouri Dylan Thompson. Thompson has shown flashes of brilliance highlighted by the Georgia game where he picked the secondary to pieces. Yet against Missouri once again this season, Thompson looked lost and mediocre as the offense couldn’t move the ball during the one game the defense decided to actually show up. Couple that with a sizable amount of drops by receivers and tight ends, a running game that has been hit or miss all season long, and supposedly one of the best offensive lines in the nation who have already allowed nine sacks, and you get a Gamecocks offense that has been wildly inconsistent while having to carry the team.
For as wildly inconsistent as the offense has been, they have still averaged 33 points per game and only failed twice this season to put up at least 30 points. How does a team go 3-3 through its first six games while averaging 33 points a game? It’s simple: Defense.
The Gamecocks are ranked 90th in total defense this season, but that doesn’t tell the half of it. The defense has just seven sacks in six games, ranking 115th in all of college football. The defense has only forced five turnovers on the season, ranking 105th in college football. The defense ranks 112th in first downs allowed and 113th in red zone defense. Most importantly, the defense can’t get off the field. The team ranks 93rd in third down defense, allowing a 44 percent conversion rate to opposing offenses, and ranks dead last in all of college football in fourth down defense, allowing teams to go a perfect seven for seven on fourth downs.
Sure the defense lost Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton, three of their four starting defensive linemen. Yes, both starting cornerbacks are gone in Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree. But the Gamecocks returned both starting safeties and all their starting linebackers.
The critics will say Clowney didn’t show up his final year. He never hustled, he took plays off, his production plummeted. The real truth is, those critics are wrong. I watched North Carolina opening night last season throw screen after screen so Clowney couldn’t come near the quarterback. I was at the Georgia game in Athens and watched the Bulldogs run eight straight running plays to the opposite side Clowney was lined up on. I watched Clowney get chipped by running backs and tight ends, double-teamed, and sometimes triple-teamed all season long. Again, the critics will say he only had 3 sacks compared to his 13 the year previous. I’ll fire back with Kelcy Quarles only had 3.5 sacks in 2012 but last season he compiled 9.5 sacks. For a defensive tackle, thats a rarity. Why? Everyone’s attention was focused on stoping Clowney.
A pass rush is crucial for a defenses success. Just look at the New York Giants and the years they won the Super Bowl. Look at the Missouri Tigers last season.
Which brings me to the Gamecocks…They have none. A pass rush for the Gamecocks has been nonexistent. Quarterbacks have had all day to throw, and they are tearing a young secondary apart. A big reason for that…the loss of Jadeveon Clowney. Until the Gamecocks find a pass rush, their defense will continue to struggle. Seven sacks in six games is unacceptable.
It’s easy to gloss over losing the number one pick in the NFL draft and the team’s all-time winningest quarterback. Conor Shaw was a gamer, the highest praise you can give a quarterback. He was the heart and soul of the team for the past three years, three years that ended with an 11-2 record. The truth is, those two players are almost impossible to replace.
It’s clear the Gamecocks were overrated coming into the season. But no one saw this coming. Questions are swirling about Lorenzo Ward’s future and about Steve Spurrier’s play calling, specifically why the team abandoned a running game that was gashing Kentucky all game long when the Gamecocks were up 14 points in the second half. Lorenzo Ward announced recently he will be moving up to the press box to call plays in hopes of getting a better view to call the right defensive plays.
Gamecock fans everywhere sure hope the move works, because with a 3-3 record the team is in danger of not making it to a bowl game this season. No game figures to be easy for the Gamecocks from here on out. Just look at the Vandy game which, on paper, looked to be an easy win. In two weeks South Carolina travels to Jordan-Hare Stadium to take on Auburn.The defense will be lucky if they hold the Tigers to under 40 points. The following week the Gamecocks get Tennessee at home, but the team lost to the Vols last season, and the Vols look much improved this season. The Gamecocks still have to travel to Gainesville, and we all know the 44-11 thumping they took in the Swamp in 2012. Trust me, I was there. Finally, the season wraps up with the annual rivalry game at Clemson, and though the Gamecocks have won five straight in the series, you know Clemson will be more motivated than ever to add to the Gamecocks misery.
Anyway you look at it, the Gamecocks are in a whole lot of trouble if the defense doesn’t start to become that ball-hawking defense South Carolina fans have become accustomed to for the past few years.
One things for sure: Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor, DeVonte Holloman, Stephon Gilmore, Antonio Allen, D.J. Swearinger and Melvin Ingram, all pros now, aren’t walking out of the tunnel into Williams Brice Stadium anytime soon.