Coming into this game, I expected a defensive struggle. That's exactly what we got last night. The good news is that when it comes to defensive struggles, we're the best around, and we completely shut down Tennessee.
Granted the competition hasn't always been the top of the line, but our defense is playing at a top-five level right now. I'd like to share a few statistics with you. The Gamecocks are currently fifth in the nation in total defense, 14th in scoring defense. We're third in the nation in pass defense and second in pass efficiency defense. We're 41st in rushing defense. Keep in mind that these numbers are include poor defensive performances against East Carolina and Georgia. One can only imagine what our passing defense numbers would be if not for Aaron Murray torching us in the second half in Athens. We're 27th in the nation in turnover margin and lead the SEC in takeaways. Over the last five games, when we've truly begun to shine, we're giving up only a bit more than seven points per game. Seven points per game, people. That's dominance.
Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward were under a lot of fire at the beginning of the season for the defense's, particularly the secondary's, subpar play last year, and the first two games of the season didn't do a lot to dispel the notion that the defense would be the team's weak link. Since the second half against Navy, though, everything has come together. What's been particularly striking is the maturation of the secondary. We knew we'd have a good pass rush, and that, with some exceptions, has played out as expected. However, many of the same defensive backs who were frequently torched last year are playing epically well right now. Stephon Gilmore has finally lived up to his billing as a top-flight shutdown corner. The safeties are making big plays left and right and aren't making any of the mental mistakes that plagued them last year. Victor Hampton and C.C. Whitlock have proven excellent counterparts to Gilmore. Our coaching staff and these players deserve credit for righting the ship and living up to their potential.
With the defense playing this way, we can win any game we play this year. I wouldn't be surprised if we blank Florida, based on what I saw from the Gators yesterday. (Honestly, I could easily see Vanderbilt upsetting Florida next week. The Gators are awful and were lucky that UGA didn't win by three scores.) Our offense is probably going to need to step up and find some way to score a few more points against Arkansas and Clemson, but I don't think they're going to need to score a lot of points. We could easily hold the Pigs and Clemson to around 20 points. It's not necessarily going to be pretty, but I believe we can win out with the level of play we're getting right now.
Continue reading after the jump.A few more thoughts:
--As for the offense, it's hard to know how to evaluate its performance last night. The running game looked great. To be honest, Brandon Wilds looks to be nearly as talented as Marcus Lattimore. I'm not joshing here, either. Obviously it's just one game, but Wilds looked like pro material last night. He's big, he runs hard, he has a nice burst of speed, and he makes good decisions on his cuts and running lanes. Connor Shaw also ran well, and the offensive line played much better in run blocking. The passing game, though, needs work, and I feel that it needs to get a little bit better if we're going to beat Arkansas and Clemson. I was very disappointed to see the line perform so poorly in pass blocking. As for Shaw, I don't think he played too poorly, considering that he was running for his life a good portion of the time, but I do continue to feel that he's holding onto the ball too long. He probably could have found the safety-valve man open on a few plays if he had released faster. He at least could have thrown the ball away. There were a couple of plays were he ran out of bounds for a loss rather than throwing it away. He needs to play smarter in those situations. I'd also like to see Spurrier dial up more quick-release plays, considering that our line just doesn't seem to be able to buy the QB much time against good defensive fronts. Strangely, we relied on such plays quite a bit against Kentucky, which didn't have the defense to put a lot of pressure on Shaw, and now that we're playing better defenses, we're not running those plays as much.
--I expected to see a lot more of Bruce Ellington in the wildcat in this game. My guess is that the hamstring may have been more of a concern than we anticipated, but Ellington was out there playing receiver, and he broke open a few times. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out this week. If he's 100%, we need to try to get him more touches. He's a playmaker who can obviate some of our offensive flaws.
--We also need to get Alshon Jeffery more touches. Because of the line play, I don't know how often we're going to go to him deep. However, we can get him more involved on the crossing routes and the slants. Jeffery is one of the best around on the slant because he's so much stronger than a typical corner. I'd also like us to try to do something with Damiere Byrd other than running jet sweeps and deep routes. We need to get a bit more creative with his speed. I do like him to take on of those sweeps to the house one day, though. He's almost broken away a few times.
--I loved the playcall to throw it to Rory Anderson on fourth-and-one in the second quarter. We've tended to run it straight up the gut in that situation, and that's exactly what UT expected. Anderson was wide open on the play, and Shaw delivered a perfect pass after rolling out. It actually wasn't even a particularly risky call, because if Anderson hadn't been open, Shaw probably could have run for the first down. Very well-designed play by Spurrier there.
--Derek Dooley's management of his QB situation was downright bizarre. Obviously, Justin Worley didn't play well, but I still don't get why Dooley pulled him. If Dooley wanted to give Worley a shot, he should have given him the whole game. Dooley had to have expected Worley to make some mistakes against a good defense, and if he didn't, he wasn't being realistic. Matt Simms clearly wasn't any better and won't be the answer for the Vols. Simply a very strange situation there.
--ESPN's coverage of this game, as well as of the Gamecocks in general, is a travesty to good sports journalism. I don't know how many times the two morons covering the game said that our running game is dysfunctional, all the while Wilds was on his way to a 100+-yard game, and with the team rushing for over 200 yards on the night. Then, in one of the evening wrap-up shows, the announcers talked at length about how we can't run the ball without Marcus Lattimore. They showed several shots of Wilds getting stuffed but none of his big gains, and they neglected to mention his overall numbers. They went on to say that Georgia is in the driver's seat. News flash: we're still ahead in the standings due to the tiebreaker and have a very good shot at winning out. The inability of ESPN's coverage to make sense of things outside of narrowly conceived narratives continues to astonish me. You'd think that they have the money to put some intelligent people up there, but that's probably the point. They play to the lowest common denominator.
That's a wrap on this one. On to Hog-ville.