There’s no way to sugarcoat what happened last night in Columbia. The Gamecocks were dominated by Texas A&M. It’s likely that the Aggies are going to be significantly better than expected this year, but that doesn’t detract from the significance of how badly we lost. Had Carolina lost by a touchdown, that would be one thing. Chalk it up to a tough loss to a slightly more elite team. Carolina lost big, though, and great teams don’t generally lose by such large margins at home. Carolina hoped to be great this year, and right now they’ve got a lot of ground to cover before they get there.
Where Carolina really struggled in this game was on defense, but I’ll start with offense. The Gamecocks didn’t play poorly on offense, but given how atrociously the defense played, the offense was going to have to be perfect to keep this game close, and Dylan Thompson and crew weren’t able to perform at that level. Carolina failed to convert on a lot of good opportunities. Some of the mistakes were committed by the receivers. Pharoh Cooper and Nick Jones (Jones had an otherwise strong game) both had big drops after being popped by Aggies safety Armani Watts; the Jones drop was in the end zone and cost Carolina a lot of momentum going into halftime. Thompson was the culprit on the play that more or less ended the game, when he was picked on a woefully underthrown ball to an open Shaq Roland.
Going into the game, I felt like Carolina needed to establish the run early on, and the Gamecocks didn’t do so. While I hate to second guess play calling, I would have liked to have seen Carolina keep the ball on the ground a little and ask the offensive line to set the tone, but we went to the air quickly and frequently. Dylan didn’t play a bad game, but as expected, he looked tight on a few throws and sailed the ball high. Perhaps if we had put him in more favorable down-distance situations, he would have been able to play calmer and make throws more consistently.
Of course, maybe running the ball more frequently wouldn’t made a difference, as the offensive line didn’t look anywhere near as strong as expected. That was likely in part because the A&M defensive line was significantly more impressive than advertised, but this was supposed to be an elite Carolina offensive line that would be able to hold its own against anyone and everyone. Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds had a handful of decent runs, but they were too few and far between, with A&M getting good penetration into the backfield on running plays. Banged up or not, we did run the ball better with Davis, which makes you wonder why he didn’t get more snaps before leaving the game for good with bruised ribs, although in Wilds’s defense, Wilds looks superior catching the ball and blocking.
Enough talking about the offense, though. The offense played well enough, and there's good reason to believe it can play even better. Defense was the culprit in this game. Credit has to go to the Aggies offense, which looks to be the total package: great QB, great receivers, phenomenal line, better backs than expected. Still, the utter and complete lack of anything like success on defense tells me that we’re in for a ride this year on that side of the ball.
The dreaded combo of lacking both a pass rush and quality corner play indeed hit us hard last night. Outside on one well-executed inside blitz from Skai Moore early in the second half, we didn’t have much success at all rushing the quarterback. We got into the backfield a few other times, but A&M’s savvy quarterback Kenny Hill was generally able to out-maneuver the rush in those situations. Most of the time, though, Hill was simply able to sit back in the pocket and pick us apart. And with Carolina corners Al Harris and Chris Lammons playing corner like freshmen and Brison Williams playing corner like a converted safety, there were plenty of open receivers for Hill to throw to. I hate to agree with him, but Jesse Palmer was right to keep reminding us that we’re missing Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. With them in the game, quarterbacks were forced to get rid of the ball quickly.
Of course, we knew we’d struggle with coverage and the pass rush, and while the young corners will probably improve, we might simply not have the personnel to develop a great pass rush this year. Ward may be able to get more pressure out of blitzing the linebackers if he gets creative, but even that group was disappointing. Thought to be a distinctive strength, our linebackers weren’t able to hold their own. For one thing, they were routinely caught out of position in the short passing game. Moreover, when the game was still well within reach in the first half, T.J. Holloman and Jonathan Walton both whiffed on tackles and allowed big conversions for the Aggies. One player I watched very closely was Bryson Allen-Williams, who saw the field a fair amount as part of the Gamecocks' new 3-4 package. He looks like a talented, athletic player who will be effective for Carolina, but in a game where we needed him to help out with the pass rush, he was routinely blocked out of plays. This group is going to need to lead our defense this season, and in this game, they didn’t look ready to do that.
I hate to say it, but I feel like it’s likely we’re in for a fight next weekend when ECU visits. The Gamecocks should be able to impose their will offensively on the Pirates, but if the Pirates are what’s expected, ECU is definitely good enough offensively to score 30+ if not more points on the Gamecocks defense we saw last night. Like A&M, the Pirates run an Air Raid offense, and if Carolina can’t force the ball out of the pocket or cover any better than it did last night, this game is going to be a shootout. Let’s hope the Gamecocks coaches, and especially Lorenzo Ward and his assistants, are up to the task of getting Carolina ready to avoid a disastrous 0-2 start.