Throughout the offseason, South Carolina fans heard the offense would be something to watch in 2017. The unit boasted an abundance of returning talent at the skill positions and went through a trial by fire with several first-year players in 2016, so it was a fair assumption the offense would take an appreciable step forward. While some observers expected improvement on the defense as well, conventional wisdom held there still wasn’t enough depth on that side of the ball, and the offense would likely have to pick up the slack. Some went as far to say the Gamecocks’ offense could be their strength, and the overall best unit they’ve put together in years.
Four games into the 2017 season, nearly the exact opposite appears to be true. On one hand, we probably should’ve seen this coming: This is a Will Muschamp team, after all, and he is not known for his offensive prowess. On the other, it’s still a disappointing development. The playcalling is often stale and uninspired; there’s no usage of tempo; personnel decisions have been confusing at best and frustrating at worst. There have also been key injuries to Deebo Samuel, Zack Bailey, and Cory Helms, which is no one’s fault, but there simply isn’t enough functional depth on the roster to take those blows and keep on ticking.
And so it’s been very surprising to see many South Carolina fans pin their frustration with the team’s recent struggles on the defense. That side of the ball, while not lights out, has done more than enough to give the Gamecocks a chance in every game they’ve played. Consider the following statistics:
- South Carolina has given up just eight touchdowns (fifth in the SEC). Yes, the Gamecocks yield piles of yardage to their opponents between the 20s, but have so far defended the red zone well.
- The Gamecocks are allowing 20 points per game, good for 40th nationally, which is an entirely manageable amount for their offense to match or exceed in today’s offensively-driven game.
- Four fumble recoveries (fourth in the SEC) and four interceptions (also fourth in the SEC). The Gamecocks have continued to force turnovers at a respectable clip, but it’s up to the offense to cash in on those.
- Oh, and South Carolina also boasts the SEC’s leading tackler in linebacker T.J. Brunson, who has been a pleasant surprise.
Now, is the Gamecocks’ defense perfect? Of course not. The most glaring deficiency is on third down, when South Carolina seemingly cannot get off the field: The Gamecocks are 109th in the country, allowing opponents to convert on a whopping 46 percent of their third downs. There are also some execution issues. The Louisiana Tech game, in particular, showcased seemingly dozens of would-be tackles for loss that became positive yardage, and a certain defensive back has been well-known to not turn his head and look for the ball. Finally, there are depth concerns as well, which will likely be exposed more after losing key contributor Bryson Allen-Williams for the season to a shoulder injury.
On the other side of the ball, the South Carolina offense is 12th in the SEC with 24 points per game, ahead of only Florida (which needed seven quarters to score its first offensive touchdown) and Vanderbilt (which saw its average plummet after a savage 59-0 beating at the hands of Alabama). The Gamecocks are also barely averaging 100 rushing yards a game at 3.5 yards per carry, and have the second-fewest rushing attempts per game at 28.25. Quarterback Jake Bentley has rung up some impressive passing numbers — the Gamecocks are third in the SEC with 250.3 yards per game and 7.8 per attempt — but the offense is still unbalanced and has difficulty sustaining drives.
The bottom line is that it’s hard for a good or even great defense to play consistently well when it’s on the field for roughly 40 minutes of every game. (The exception is the win at Missouri, which was the most complete performance the Gamecocks have had this year.) Is the bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy hard to watch at times? Yes, especially when that explosive play inevitably happens and the defense does break. Is the South Carolina defense still doing its job? For the most part, yes. It’s time for the offense to hold up its end of the bargain.