I’ve read a lot of discussion about how the playcalling was bad in the first half: Lattimore only had five carries, Shaw ran twice at the goal line, shotgun snap on fourth down, etc. I know this goes against the prevailing opinion, but I will argue that the playcalling was fine and that it was the execution that was lacking.
Let’s take a look at the three areas with which people had the most issues, which are the number of rushes for Lattimore, the goal line offense, and the fourth down play call.
Lattimore’s carry total
Marcus Lattimore only had five carries for 12 yards in the first half which is both low on carries and yardage. However, running back carries are driven by a few factors: the decision on whether to run or pass on standard downs (downs like 1st and 10, 2nd and 6, 3rd and 3), how many standard downs you have (are you in a lot of 2nd and longs?), and the type of offense a team runs (spread option vs. pro-style).
I will use first down playcalling as a proxy for the decision to run versus pass. Early in the game, a team’s strategy isn’t affected by the score or situation, so a coach can choose to establish either the run or the pass. South Carolina ran eight times and passed only four times on first down, so there doesn’t seem to be an issue here.
Of the first down runs, Connor Shaw kept the ball four times, Lattimore ran it three times, and Ace Sanders had one carry. One could argue here that Shaw should hand off to Lattimore more often, but that would be ignoring the fact that South Carolina runs a lot of zone read option runs. If the DE commits to the running back, Shaw has to keep the ball on the option, which is what happened. Additionally, he gained 32 yards on his four first down carries, quite an impressive number. Conversely, Lattimore only gained four yards on his three first down carries. So poor running by the offense put them in a lot of passing downs, thus liming the number of rushes.
Spurrier tried to get the running game established by calling for rushes on two-thirds of first down plays, but the intricacies of the zone read offense and poor blocking on Lattimore’s runs are the cause for failure here.
Goal line play calling
South Carolina had first and goal from the Kentucky 7 yard line and could not score after four carries. Those four plays started with two 3 yard runs by Lattimore followed by two no gains by Shaw on quarterback sneaks.
One could argue that Lattimore should have gotten the ball on third and fourth down, and he or she would probably be correct. But let’s look at the two plays Spurrier did call. On third down Shaw kept the ball on a sneak and appeared to score, but had a bad spot from the official. Then on fourth down, as soon as Shaw got the ball, the Kentucky NT pushed USC’s center TJ Johnson back into Shaw and blew up the play. It’s hard to argue that Lattimore would have scored on a run up the gut since there was absolutely no room due to bad blocking.
Historically the quarterback sneak is a very high percentage play on the goal line when you compare it to handing the ball off to a RB six or seven yards deep in the backfield. So for me it’s hard to blame Spurrier here, especially when the Gamecocks OL should be able to blow Kentucky off the line. However, I won't argue with anyone who questions out the playcalling here; the argument to give the ball to Lattimore two more times can certainly be made in this situation.
Fourth down playcall
South Carolina went for it on fourth and one from its own 34 yard line. There are two things to debate here: the decision to go for it and the choice of play to run.
I love the decision to go for it. Spurrier was very aggressive on fourth downs last year and it paid off huge in games against Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee last year. An efficient running team like South Carolina should convert on a large majority of 4th and shorts and today was no exception.
Carolina lined up in a shotgun spread zone read look on this particular play. Everyone knew what was coming—Shaw would read the DE and keep it if the DE committed inside to Lattimore, otherwise Lattimore would get it up the gut. However, a poor snap and thus poor execution by the center (once again) caused the ball to go sailing over Shaw’s head.
I put this one squarely on poor execution by the team. Normal execution by the offense picks this play up against a poor defense like Kentucky.
So in summary, to me, the execution was lacking in the first half and once the execution improved in the second half, the playcalling looked better, even though the strategy was similar.
Looking quickly at the second half, the first drive had four runs, only two of them to Lattimore, but this time he picked up 25 yards on those two runs. The second drive had three runs by Lattimore out of five total, and once again he was efficient in picking up 17 yards. That story continued throughout the rest of the game, leading to a big Gamecock win and the perception that the team fed Lattimore, when in reality Lattimore and the offense executed better and ran more total plays as a result.