The Gamecocks didn't play a perfect game against Mississippi St., but there was enough to like in the 34-16 win that I'm feeling more and more optimistic about our chances of finishing the regular season with another three wins. The big news in the win was the improved play of the defense, which held MSU to 5.5 yards per pass, 4.3 yards per carry, and forced five turnovers. Mississippi St. finished with under 400 yards on the day, not a bad result at all for us considering that the Bulldogs controlled time of possession due to several three-and-outs by the Carolina offense. The numbers looked even more dominant prior to the fourth quarter, when MSU padded its stats while our backups were in and our offense didn't spend any extended time on the field while running a very vanilla scheme.
Was the defense perfect? No. There were occasional missed tackles, and Carolina showed some vulnerability to Dak Prescott on the QB keeper. You also have to chalk some of the defense's success to Prescott's atrocious play in the passing game. However, Carolina's defense has come a long way. We gave up no plays of longer than 22 yards in this game, an impressive stat considering our tendency to give up big plays this year. Victor Hampton came through with a masterful game in coverage, and I'm really starting to love the play of Chaz Elder at safety. Elder has the look of a long-term starter for Carolina who has the chance to compete for All-SEC honors by the end of his career. The linebacking corps is making more and more plays. We've found another multi-year star in Skai Moore, and T.J. Holloman and Kaiwan Lewis appear to be becoming more and more dependable. There are fewer and fewer "groan" moments while watching this group of linebackers, which was victimized earlier in the season by pedestrian Vandy and Kentucky offenses. Even the much-maligned Sharrod Golightly played very well Saturday; it was clearly the best game of his career, and his performance went some ways towards confirming Lorenzo Ward's belief in his potential.
Although Mississippi St. isn't a great measure of how our defense would play against an elite offense, our performance this weekend certainly has me believing we can shut down Florida's offense, which garnered only a little over 300 yards against a porous Georgia defense last week, and recently turned in an epic three-and-out fest against Missouri. Clemson will provide a bigger test, but the Tigers' offense has not been as good this year as it had been previously under Chad Morris. The Gamecocks have had success against Morris's offenses in recent years because we've been able to prevent the kinds of big plays this offense thrives on and to physically intimidate Clemson QB Tajh Boyd, and if our defense continues to play like it did this past weekend, we can do that once again when CU comes to town, particularly if CU's offense continues performing at sub-Chad levels.
The question mark from Saturday's performance, of course, is the offense. The offensive performance reminded me of the 2012 Gamecocks in that we capitalized on field position advantages and showed explosion on a couple of longer drives, but had more trouble mounting sustained drives. Despite the 36 points, this was hardly the clinical, balanced offense we put on the field earlier in the season. However, that was in large part due to the health of Connor Shaw. It was clear that we weren't going to risk using Shaw in the running game, and his passes seemed to have a bit less zip on them, too, perhaps a result of weakness after a week of illness. He also seemed to be having trouble recognizing open receivers; whether that was because he wasn't seeing the field or because he was being tentative is unclear. In any event, it will make a major difference to have Shaw healthy again for the Florida game. It will open up the zone-read game that's so key to our offensive efficiency, and will likely make him more comfortable letting it rip from the pocket. To make matters even better, we'll be getting Brandon Wilds back as the second-team tailback. Although Shon Carson has improved steadily during Wilds's absence, Wilds is decidedly better and should be able to contribute a great deal to the offense while helping keep Mike Davis fresh.
In sum, with the defense improving and the offense likely to get right as the wounded heal over the off week, I feel good about our chances down the stretch. We could be peaking at just the right time.