In eeking out a 24-21 victory against the Navy Midshipmen on Saturday, South Carolina narrowly avoided the football equivalent of getting shut out by Tim Wakefield.
Was it embarrassing? Yes. But does the fact that South Carolina only beat Navy by three tell us anything about how the Gamecocks (particularly their defense) will play during the remainder of the season? Just as looking foolish in four plate appearances against Wakefield's knuckleball today doesn't mean you won't pummel John Lackey's lifeless fastball tomorrow, the answer is "Of course not."
Most of the criticism of the team's performance in last weekend's home opener seems to center around 1) the passing game and 2) the defense (particularly on third and fourth downs).
The Passing Game
My own comments about Stephen Garcia in the game thread were pretty sharply negative. But he did get much better as the game went on, which I think had something to do with Spurrier finally abandoning the foolhardy notion that Garcia can excel as a primarily vertical passer.
I got the impression from Spurrier all week that he was indignant about having to play a team like Navy and just wanted to light them up in the first quarter and be done with it. Unfortunately, this team isn't quite there yet - at least in the passing game. Spurrier needs to figure something out quick though. It's difficult to understand why they can't pass the ball at least as effectively as they did last year. The only major contributor lost was Tori Gurley, and he wasn't exactly beating teams all by himself.
I'm actually much less worried about the defense.
A great deal has been made of the Gamecocks' continued difficulty getting teams off the field, but the defense's third down down woes (9 conversions in 14 attempts) were primarily a result result of Navy being extremely efficient on second down, successfully gaining at least half of the yards needed for a first down 87.5% of the time. When you can do that on second down, of course you're going to convert more than 50% of your third down attempts. Obviously, the defense is just as accountable for how they play on second down as they are on third, but Navy's offense is designed to set up easy conversions of third down and short yardage.
The Gamecocks only stopped the Middies on 50% of their passing attempts on third or fourth down, which is certainly a lower success rate than you'd like to see against a team like Navy, but given that there were only six such plays during the game, this could just be the result of a small sample size. Interestingly, the Gamecocks thwarted the three pass plays that did not come on third or fourth and long (2 incompletions, 1 gain of 2 yards), when Navy presumably had the element of surprise on its side.
The most encouraging defensive stat from this game is that they improved on a per play basis by over a yard and a half from the first half to the second (6.58 yards per play and 5.04 yards per play, respectively). This alleviates a lot of concerns that I had about Ellis Johnson's inability to make adjustments to Georgia's offensive gameplan in the second half of last week's game.*
Because Navy's offense is so unusual and does so much to negate what teams like South Carolina do well, it's very difficult to evaluate the performance of the defensive unit in a way that would bear any relevance to the nine games on the schedule that have yet to be played. It's probably best to just throw this game out altogether in your analysis of this team. But even if you include it, we're really only looking at one truly bad quarter of defense: the fourth quarter of the UGA game, a quarter in which the defense was so awful that excluding it from the season totals would result in a 10% drop in the defense's yards per play from 5.39 to 4.9.
There's a decent chance that, by the end of the season, everyone is talking about how vastly this defense has improved, when really - with the exception of one quarter - I don't think it's been as bad as advertised.
*Ellis Johnson mentioned in his postgame interview that he was on the sidelines for the Georgia game instead of in the booth. Is it possible that this inhibited his ability to make the necessary adjustments to the Bulldogs' short passing game? Maybe I'm fishing for a narrative here, but it could certainly explain a glaring coaching blunder.