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Advanced Box Score: Gamecocks killed on passing downs

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When the teams were on schedule, the Gamecocks and Aggies played to a draw. But when either faced a second or third down and long scenario, the Aggies stepped up, while the Gamecocks fell apart.

Too often on Thursday, the secondary was left making plays on passing downs.
Too often on Thursday, the secondary was left making plays on passing downs.
Grant Halverson

We'll be running this series weekly to analyze what went wrong (or hopefully in the future, right) for the Gamecocks each week.  The full explanation of the statistics used below can be found here.

A&M SC
Points 52 28
Drives 11 11
Pts/Drive 4.73 2.55
Plays 99 66
Yards 692 493
Yds. per Play 6.99 7.47
Standard Downs 5.69 8.00
Passing Downs 11.04 6.41
Rush Yds 169 67
Rush Yds/Play 4.33 3.05
Pass Yds 511 366
Pass Yds/Play 8.52 9.15
Penalty 21 95
Success Rate 54.55% 46.97%
Standard Downs 53.33% 54.55%
Passing Downs 58.33% 31.82%
Turnovers 0 1
RZ Trips 8 2
Points 52 14
Pts/RZ Trip 6.5 7

Five thoughts:

1. The Gamecocks spent way too much time with the defense on the field

It's not that you can't win games by running significantly fewer plays than the opposition.  As we learned in the first quarter of the A&M game, you can keep up by hitting big balls down the field, and for a while, Carolina did.  But typically, explosive plays like that aren't quite as certain as the mundane first down that teams tend to earn.  You need both, but if you're choosing one, choose first downs.  A&M chose first downs, Carolina went big or went home.  So why did the Carolina defense spend so much time on the field?

2.  Passing down nightmare

When the Gamecocks and Aggies lined up on first and ten, though it doesn't seem like it in retrospect, they basically matched one another.  Carolina and A&M both were successful on just over half of their plays that we define as standard downs (any 1st down, 2nd down and less than 8, and 3rd or 4th and less than 5).  In fact, the Gamecocks even out-gained A&M on a per-play basis by a pretty significant margin on these plays, grabbing eight yards a play to the Aggies 5.7 yards per play.

But when they got behind schedule, the Gamecock offense disappeared.  Carolina was successful on just 32% of their passing downs for just 6.4 yards per play, which meant they weren't able to get yards or first downs, let alone both. That makes staying on schedule incredibly important, and while the Gamecocks did it, they didn't do it nearly enough.

And when it went the other way?  A&M simply found another gear.  The Aggies stayed just as successful (actually more so, getting it done on 58% of passing downs) and did so while getting huge chunks of yardage.  In some ways it makes sense that teams gain more yards on second- and third-and-long, given the defense doesn't mind giving up some yards to prevent a first down.  But when you're giving up over 11 yards per play in those situations, as a defense you're not getting off the field.

The Gamecocks did enough on standard downs on both sides of the ball.  But when adversity struck the offenses, the Gamecock defense couldn't get off the field, and the Gamecock offense couldn't stay on the field.

3. This could've been worse

The Gamecocks succeeded on just seven of their 22 passing downs.  Three of those came on defensive pass interference penalty calls.  Putting aside how deserved (or undeserved) each of those calls were, Carolina could've easily gone 4-for-22 on passing downs, which would've resulted in a shocking 18% success rate.

Dylan Thompson, Steve Spurrier, and the entire Carolina offense need to find some plays that work when they end up behind schedule on offense, because the deep balls won't be there every game.

4.  A&M dominates the red zone

While the focus of the earlier paragraphs centers on the Gamecocks' inability to stop A&M in passing downs, it's worth noting that they would've kept the team in the game far longer had they simply been able to stop the Aggies on trips to the red zone.  Of the eight trips A&M took (not counting the ninth, where they took a knee), A&M scored 6.5 points per trip.  The Gamecocks actually topped that rate by getting touchdowns on both of their trips inside the 20, but if you're going to employ a bend-but-don't-break defense, you need to not break at some point.  Carolina simply couldn't stop the Aggies when they got close, and thus went their only chance of staying in the game.

5. It's not the end of the season

When I looked at this, I was surprised that I saw places to find optimism.  There's not a ton, and there are plenty of areas you can be VERY pessimistic.  But Carolina did some things well on both sides of the ball.

There's plenty to work on, especially when it comes to finding more of a rhythm on offense and preventing big plays on defense.  The former can improve.  The latter, well, we hope not everyone runs in to the stadium with the types of weapons A&M had at its disposal.  Not everyone will, of course.  So, there's a decent chance the Gamecocks rebound nicely against ECU.

But Auburn and Georgia absolutely will.  And this game is very much cause for concern when we face talents like that on offense.