In spite of being a five-point underdog against a NC State team some media members had in the playoff, South Carolina managed to pull off a 35-28 win that left Gamecock fans grasping for their handkerchiefs.
Let’s not get it twisted, if we’re merely judging be one-game samples NC State is not a team to be trifled with. The Wolfpack gave South Carolina scare after scare, but thanks to some big special teams plays and turnovers the Gamecocks were able to pull off their third straight opening week win.
Keeping in mind we are judging everything off a one game sample, here are five big observations we made to keep in mind going forward as South Carolina travels to face Missouri — fresh off a 72-43 win over FCS Missouri State.
Don’t be fooled by total yardage
Hopefully if you’re a regular reader of SB Nation CFB content, you’ve stumbled across Bill Connelly’s literature on smarter stats. If you have, you’d know to never use total yardage as a true gauge of offensive/defensive performance.
Yes, from the outset NC State totaling 504 yards of offense is a little jarring but it took them 99 plays to do so. That’s 5.1 yards a play, which in the grand scheme of the metric is not good. For context, if NC State averaged 5.1 yards a play over the course of last season it would have ranked them 92nd in the county in between Buffalo and Iowa.
Yes, watching NC State put together long drives was unnerving but of the 99 plays NC State ran only four went for over 20 yards. South Carolina kept the big, backbreaking plays to a minimum, but on that note...
South Carolina’s defensive DNA hasn’t changed at all from last season
If you read BillC’s South Carolina preview, you’d know preventing big plays and opting for long drives was the Gamecock’s defensive IMO in 2016. I wrote an article about in the a couple weeks back, but let me give you a refresher.
The reason you were yelling at the TV every time a South Carolina defensive back was seven yards away from a North Carolina State receiver when they caught a ball is because that’s how SC’s base defense is designed. Because South Carolina still can’t generate a pass rush, they can’t afford to play press and risk a big play developing — especially against NC State’s receivers.
Give credit to South Carolina on getting four sacks, but on 68 pass attempts that only works out to be a 5.8 percent sack rate. To put that in context, if SC had done that over the course of 2016 that would have ranked them 68th in the country in between Arizona State and Kansas State (Sadly it would have been better than what SC actually did — 92nd).
Until SC can prove the can generate better than an average pass rush, expect SC to keep in their off-man base.
Hayden Hurst was almost absent from the game plan
This was an odd development to watch throughout the game. Hayden Hurst was put on a number of preseason All-SEC teams for good reason. He set South Carolina’s single season record for tight end receiving yards and was SC’s third-most targeted pass catcher from a year ago.
However Saturday Hurst was targeted only four times and caught one screen pass for negative two yards. He was more often used as an extra blocker than he was a receiver. I was at least expecting them to attack the seams with Hurst or August, but OC Kurt Roper opted not to.
Maybe it’s as simple as NC State was good at defending tight ends last season and Roper just decided that wasn’t going to be an option Saturday. However it’s definitely something to keep an eye on going forward to next week.
South Carolina can’t afford to depend on turnovers all season
Going back to BillC’s statistics, if you come from his school of thought (and I do) then you know turnovers are based mostly on luck. Sure, you can coach ball security on offense and going for strips on defense but once the ball hits the ground of flails in the air no one can control where it falls.
South Carolina was lucky to have two fumbles bounce their way, according to Bill’s research only 55 percent of fumble actually turn into turnovers. South Carolina was fortunate enough to have both of those fumbles happen in good field position and turned both takeaways into touchdowns.
As nice as they are to have, South Carolina’s offense only averaged an abysmal 4.1 yards per play and were bailed out by those two fumbles alongside Deebo Samuel’s kick return. That’s got to change if you’re going to outpace Missouri next week.
Kudos to the run defense
Further into 2016 South Carolina’s run defense went from passable to downright awful. In their final four regular season games they gave up at least 5.8 yards a carry before putting a cap on South Florida at 4.3.
Saturday saw a refreshing new look for the South Carolina run defense, holding NC State to 3.4 yards a carry on 31 carries when you take away the sacks. Even more importantly, the Gamecocks held the RB tandem of Nyheim Harris and Reggie Gallaspy to 3.8 yards a carry.
Here’s what fans need to understand: South Carolina’s defense wasn’t the problem Saturday, it was the offense. It’s true the Gamecocks gave up a lot between the twenties, but when it came down to it they helped keep a sputtering offense in the game.
Take away three big pass plays by Jake Bentley and South Carolina only averages 2.6 yards per play — very boom or bust. NC State’s defense is undoubtedly good, much better than what SC will face in Missouri next week. But don’t let 35 points fool you, there is still plenty to work on for next week.
Either way, 1-0 is 1-0 against a quality team like NC State. Tune up those pacemakers readers, this season could cause a lot more hair loss and soiled pants when it’s all said and done.