We all knew that South Carolina's unprecedented run of success would eventually come to an end. We didn't (and still don't) know when it would happen, why it would happen, and how sharp or prolonged the decline would be.
I believe that the Gamecock football program is still headed in the right direction, but progress isn't always linear. Big steps forward will sometimes be followed by small steps backward, a reality that was easy enough to overlook in the wake of four consecutive seasons that seemed to build ever higher upon the successes of the one that preceded.
Many of us saw the cracks in the foundation but either ignored them or convinced ourselves that the flaws weren't so severe that they couldn't be overcome by strengths at other positions. Here's how those blemishes undid the Gamecocks in their 52-28 loss to Texas A&M.
Dylan Thompson was more bust than boom
When South Carolina was able to connect on the deep ball, it was a thing of beauty. But the highs weren't high enough or often enough to make up for the 23 passes out of 40 attempts that resulted in either an incompletion (19), a sack (3), or an interception (1). It seemed as though Dylan Thompson was either throwing lasers to completely uncovered receivers or overthrowing them by 10 feet, and nothing in between.
Mind you, this all fits neatly into our preexisting knowledge of what kind of quarterback Dylan is. Unlike Connor Shaw, he's much more willing to throw receivers open when they don't necessarily look open. Sometimes this penchant for risk-taking results in three-play touchdown drives. At other times, it results in a string of soul-crushing three-and-outs. It was more the latter than the former on Thursday night.
Even though South Carolina amassed 433 yards of total offense and actually outgained Texas A&M on a per-play basis (by one tenth of a yard, but still), the Gamecocks proved themselves incapable of sustaining a drive of any length. As a result, the Aggies nearly doubled up Carolina in time of possession. While this is partly owed to the Gamecock defense's inability to get the Texas A&M offense off the field, the Gamecock offense's two-of-nine performance on third down conversions did their teammates no favors.
By the way, both of those third down conversions came via pass interference penalties levied against Texas A&M.
The offensive line passed the eye test and little else
Over the past few years, there has been disconnect between the success of the Gamecock running backs and the relative disfavor with which the advanced stats have regarded South Carolina's offensive line.
From Bill Connelly's 2014 South Carolina preview:
If you pass the eyeball test, and the guy you're blocking for is doing well, we just pretty much assume that you're a pretty good offensive line. Well, Mike Davis thrived, and the S.C. line is simply enormous -- the seven returnees with starting experience average 6'5, 311, and that's including relative dwarf Clayton Stadnik. (The other six average 6'6, 318.)
It's a little bit confusing, then, to see that South Carolina ranked only 37th in Adj. Line Yards. But the Gamecocks weren't as good in short-yardage situations as one would think with this (and Davis') size, and the efficiency numbers were only good overall, not great.
Well, the guys they were blocking for didn't do very well on Thursday night. South Carolina averaged just 4.31 yards per carry as a team against A&M. Mike Davis' 15 yards on six carries and one rib injury weighed down the team average, but even Brandon Wilds' decent 5.0 yards per carry was aided by touches that came after the game was no longer in doubt.
Pass protection wasn't much better. Dylan Thompson was sacked on six percent of his pass attempts, almost twice the rate at which he was sacked in 2013. And many of Thompson's incompletions were the result of mad scrambles to get the ball out of bounds before a completely unblocked defender tackled him for a loss.
South Carolina is just not going to be very good at defense in 2014
We should have been able to figure this out. Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Chaz Sutton, and Victor Hampton aren't on the team anymore. All four players were four-star prospects or higher out of high school, and each fulfilled enough of that potential to earn a legitimate shot at playing in the NFL. Even with those players, the Gamecocks finished 2013 in a three-year decline in yards per play allowed. Their replacements were either much more lightly recruited, just a few months removed from their high school graduation, or both.
These facts were repeated ad nauseam throughout the offeseason and yet it feels like we never allowed ourselves to absorb the full impact of the blow. We sated our concerns with news of a defensive scheme change that it turns out we don't have the personnel to execute and the logical fallacy that past success is a meaningful guarantor of future success.
Not until Texas A&M was winning by three scores did we grant ourselves leave to admit that these rationalizations were complete and utter folly.
Can this be fixed this year?
For the most part, yes. The offensive line isn't as bad as it looked. Dylan Thompson will settle down, and so will the receivers who dropped a few passes that hit them right in the hands. The secondary is green, but there's enough talent on hand to allow for some optimism that they'll improve as they learn on the job.
There might be no fix for the defensive line though. Darius English isn't going to become Mario Edwards between now and the Georgia game. Mason Harris isn't ever going to be anything more than a guy who will sub in on third-and-long for the rabbits package, and even that might be too big a role for him. South Carolina simply doesn't have the personnel to offer much hope that this situation will get better, especially if Lorenzo Ward intends to stick with the 3-4 front.
How can South Carolina avoid putting itself in this situation in future years?
What happened last night in Columbia was the culmination of several bad years of recruiting and roster management. In a vacuum, South Carolina's recruiting rankings for the past three years look fine. According to 247Sports' composite recruiting index, the Gamecocks signed the No. 17, No. 20, and No. 16 classes from 2012 to 2014. The unseen flaw is that, for three straight recruiting cycles, the Gamecocks have addressed their biggest weakness one year too late.
South Carolina needed to sign a strong linebacker class in 2012. Instead, they waited until 2013 -- after graduating four senior linebackers -- to bring in Skai Moore, Jonathan Walton, and Larenz Bryant. Similarly, cornerback was a position that the Gamecocks should have addressed in the 2013 cycle. Instead, the position went mostly unaddressed until 2014, after Jimmy Legree graduated, Victor Hampton declared early for the NFL Draft, and Ahmad Christian decided that transferring to Utah sounded like a good idea. Defensive end needed immediate attention as well, if not in 2013 then definitely by 2014. David Johnson was the lone defensive end signee in the 2013 class. Blake McClain was the only 2014 signee who qualified. South Carolina's 2015 defensive line class is incredible, but Shameik Blackshear, Marquavius Lewis, and Arden Key do the Gamecocks little good while they play out their final seasons of high school/junior college.
Obviously, there's a lot more involved in filling needs through recruiting than just deciding that you need players at that position. For instance, there's the small matter of actually convincing players to come to your school. But it's concerning that the Gamecocks have been plagued by the same issue for three years running.
Many of the upsetting aspects of the 52-28 loss can be chalked up to the Aggies having played one hell of a game. This isn't one of them.