The 2016 college football season has been, thus far, surprisingly predictable despite a sea of opportunity for the usual chaos and early season wackiness. Of those predictable outcomes, none is more apparent than the inability of a team led by Will Muschamp to figure out a way to score points and do it now please and thank you.
But, how? you say.
For the Gamecocks, seemingly everyone had a singular focus before the first snap of spring ball: can they find enough skill-position talent to utilize a fairly experienced & capable offensive line and right the ship in Columbia?
Not so fast, my friend.
Through six games, the skill position players have shown their own unique ability to make plays through flashes of brilliance. Meanwhile, the offensive line’s production has been, well, let’s say that it’s been slightly underwhelming.
Okay, it’s been downright miserable at times.
Injuries and other factors have exacerbated the line’s performance, but the heart of the issue remains: the o-line is, at best, a poor unit. However, the case can be made that the ability is actually still there and a lack of consistency is the root cause of the woes experienced up front. The question then becomes ‘what’s causing the inconsistency?’
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s directly flowing from an inability to properly establish a credible ground attack.
It’s no secret that the main focus entering the season was the choose-your-own-adventure story that was the quarterback race. It was, and still is, a legitimate debate and something that still needs some serious attention (not this much attention), but, it may have distracted from the issue that’s been smoldering in the backfield since 2014.
The South Carolina Gamecocks stopped running the dang ball.
Not immediately. Not intentionally. Rather, it was an error of omission that began the decline. We can wax poetic on the virtues of singular talent and rare ability at the running back position and claim that such players only come along once in a generation. If you have that opinion, you are part of the problem, not the solution. Great running backs do not define a running game. Consistent, persistent, competent running backs do.
South Carolina has five such players, and each of them have potential
(except one), but, there is one player in particular that could potentially become the cornerstone from which the South Carolina running game is rebuilt, and that might be the Gamecocks only hope of a rebound both short- and long-term:
Yep. Him. The true freshman that just earned his first career start against the University of Georgia last week. The guy that coughed up the football early in the game but also scored a touchdown and has all of the makings of a pretty decent running back in the SEC.
If. They. Just. Give. Him. The. Dang. Ball (more than seven times, anyways.)
He flew under the radar, and wasn’t offered by USC until late in his recruitment process, but, his ability as a downhill runner has always been there:
His performance against Texas A&M proved that his skills can and do translate well in the college game:
His performance against UGA underscored the point:
Now I know what you’re saying, “BUT, AJ TURNER IS A STUD WITH HUGE PLAYMAKING ABILITY AND A LOT MOR-” Stop.
I know. He’s already struggled with an injury, he’s basically brand-new to college football, and he might not be the most talented running back on the team. All of those are valid points. However, why not start at the very essence of where South Carolina lost their way on offense? The Gamecocks are averaging LESS THAN THREE YARDS PER CARRY this season. The long-term answer doesn’t lie in emphasizing the zone read or wildcat formations or other various forms of tomfoolery; it lies in the ability of a downhill running game to keep defenses on their heels. It’s repetition. It’s ‘Ground ‘N’ Pound’ football that forces the defense to divert some of their attention away from the air attack. It’s the way you win football games and move the ball forward when you need to. It’s how you rebuild.
Admit it. You believe it too. It’s okay. It happens when Steve Spurrier takes over your football team for a decade. The only reason the Gamecocks had any semblance of a running attack is the fact that in the last six years they’ve had the best running back in school history, a guy who’s going to be in the NFL for quite some time, and the most effective mobile quarterback I’ve ever watched play the game of football. Do you remember South Carolina’s running game from 2005-2009? Me neither.
The case is clear. The team is playing a ton of true freshmen. The team needs cohesion. Anything is something more than desperate attempts to hope that big plays happen. We know it hasn’t worked really well thus far this season, but these things take time, and they take commitment. Is Rico Dowdle the next great thing at South Carolina? we’re never going to know until we try.
It’s not going to be easy.
It’s probably not going to work very well right away.
But it might just be our only hope.