Prior to yesterday's game against the Auburn Tigers, I felt that South Carolina would need to take some risks in order to beat an Auburn team that appeared to have a significant advantage coming into the game. The Gamecocks indeed took a ton of chances in this game. Carolina went for it on fourth down time after time, including once on fourth-and-seven from the Gamecocks' own side of the field. All but the final fourth-down attempt, which was a fourth-down pass into the end zone when Carolina could have reduced the Auburn lead to four with an easy field goal, worked. Carolina also tried an onside kick, something I predicted to the people I was with at the game that Carolina would try at some point in the half. The play was executed as well as it could possibly be, and Carolina recovered. Steve Spurrier also emptied out the playbook offensively, running trick plays, a shovel pass I don't recall having ever seen before during Spurrier's tenure, and generally doing whatever he could to move the ball. The offensive gameplan was one of the best I've ever seen from Spurrier, not just the trick plays but also the decision to constantly roll Dylan Thompson out of the pocket in order to minimize the pass rush. Almost everything worked, too, as Carolina rolled up 535 yards against an Auburn defense that has been very solid this year.
In the end, though, none of this mattered, because Carolina's defense was absolutely destroyed by the Tigers offense. While obviously credit goes to Auburn for having a formidable, well-coached offense, this was likely the most pathetic defensive effort I've ever seen from Carolina, with the possible exception of the 2007 Arkansas game. The Gamecocks defense actually looked good on the opening Auburn drive, forcing a punt after not giving up too much yardage. On the ensuing possession, Carolina drove down the field but Thompson threw an interception in the red zone. Disconcerted after the momentum-shifting interception, the Gamecocks let Auburn score quickly. Giving up quick scores ended up being the story of the night for the Carolina defense, as the Tigers repeatedly gashed the Gamecocks defense for over 550 yards despite getting less possessions than Carolina due to the onside kick. Auburn got 10.4 yards per pass and a whopping 8.4 yards per rush. They got several big plays, and rarely did they get less than four or five yards. What makes the performance particularly ugly is that Carolina's offense helped the defense tremendously by bleeding clock, and the onside kick gave the defense much-needed rest in the third quarter. The Tigers still, though, did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. On the handful of times when Auburn was forced into a third-and-long situation, the Tigers almost always converted. Carolina forced two punts in the game, on Auburn's first drive and on its last, and Auburn was playing conservatively on the last drive. With just slightly better defensive play, Carolina could have won. It didn't get it, as the defense played nearly as badly as possible.
At this point, it's difficult to see Lorenzo Ward being retained as defensive coordinator, or of Kirk Botkin or Deke Adams returning, either, unless Spurrier finds a new role for Adams. This defense is historically awful, and Spurrier's entire gameplan represents a vote of no confidence in the defense. I'm not sure I've ever seen a game get to the point where the offense goes for it on every fourth down regardless of field position or distance to go, where the coach refuses to attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter that would cut the lead to four because the coach wants the touchdown so badly, and where the coach calls for an onside kick in the third quarter. And the truth was, can you blame Spurrier? I told the people sitting with me at the game that there was no reason not to try the onside kick, as Auburn was going to score a touchdown whether they got the ball on the 25 or the 50. There's just no reason to believe in this defense any longer, and if Spurrier has that little confidence in the defense, I can't see how he retains Ward at year's end, particularly with some talented coordinators likely to be available.
Unfortunately, given how badly the defense has played, I don't feel that the better-than-expected performance against Auburn portends improved play down the stretch. We knew coming into the game that the Gamecocks could score points, and that if they did so and got some breaks and big special teams plays, they could make things hard on Auburn. Carolina enjoyed a perfectly called game from Spurrier and a nearly flawless, outside of a few red-zone miscues by Thompson, performance from the offensive personnel. Special teams helped by recovering a fumbled punt and recovering the onside kick. As such, it shouldn't be surprising we were able to keep it so close. The primary problem for this team remains apparent. We have no defense, and while none of our remaining opponents have Auburn's offense, don't be surprised when they, too, put up big numbers offensively. They may not make it look as easy as Auburn did, but I have no confidence in this defense getting things turned around, even against a team like Tennessee, which may be starting its third-string QB against the 'Cocks. That's where we are right now. Hopefully, the offense keeps up its pace and Dylan makes a few more plays down the stretch to close out the wins. Maybe the defense will get one or two more stops per game and/or capitalize on poor offensive play with a turnover or two. That's about the best we can hope for. These remaining games are definitely more there for the taking than Auburn was, but it's not going to be easy.
I'd like to lastly touch on Dylan's performance. Dylan made some crucial mistakes and misfires in the red zone in this game, but I find it hard to blame this game on him in any respect. He made a number of excellent plays. He threw for over 400 yards. That's right, 400 yards! Carolina drove the ball on every possession. He wasn't perfect, but in a game where he got so little help from his defense, is it fair to expect perfection? I don't feel that it is. As the season progresses, the more and more I feel bad for Thompson, who has performed admirably in a situation where he's required to do more than most quarterbacks in order to keep his team in games. Kudos for him for keeping his head up and coming to each game ready to fight.