Most fans leaving Williams-Brice stadium Thursday night after the Gamecocks lost 52-28 to the Aggies all seemed to be in a zombified state of disbelief over what they had just seen, and honestly who could blame them? The South Carolina Gamecocks had won 18 in a row there, and combined with three bowl wins in a row, it meant most fans can’t remember what it felt like to leave a game that the Gamecocks lost. Gone are the days that Gamecock fans were used to losing and so it was no big deal. Fans and analysts alike seemed pretty confident heading into this game that South Carolina would win fairly easily. So what went wrong? Too many fans would simply say “everything went wrong”, but ultimately it came down to a few basics.
But before we discuss any specifics on what went wrong, I feel there is one very important piece that not only needs to be put in context, but impacts many of the parts that went wrong. The Gamecocks defense is really young and inexperienced. There are a lot of guys with raw talent, but in terms in playing in that type of situation that raw talent only gets you so far. So how young is the defense? On Thursday night, 31 players were on the field at some point for the defense, and 17 of those were either freshmen or sophomores. Of those 17, six of those were starters as well. So we’re not just talking guys that got in the game for a minute, we’re talking about some big minutes. When you have that many guys with so little experience, you’re bound to have issues. So let’s take a look at the specifics of what went wrong.First and foremost, there were missed tackles everywhere. You don’t have to be a coach to see this one. Running backs on draw plays picked up giant chunks of yardage at will. Pass after pass went inside the hash marks on inside slants or a cross, only to have the initial tackle missed and the receiver was now in open field. In fact, the Aggies picked up 278 yards after the catch, a staggering number even for A&M. Most likely, missed tackles were the issue that frustrated the coaches more than anything, because that means the Gamecocks had the chance to stop them, but didn’t.
Second, the Gamecocks had almost no pressure on Kenny Hill the entire game. I’m not sure there was even a defender in the backfield until sometime in mid-second quarter. It seemed as though the defense definitely missed Skai Moore’s presence in the first quarter as he was forced to sit out. Jonathan Walton and T.J. Holloman, the two linebackers that some people were a little surprised that started the game, only combined for three tackles. The defense seemed to try a few blitzes late in the second quarter and again in the third, but Lorenzo Ward didn’t feel it was working well enough, so went back to a straight up defense that clearly didn’t work either. In the end, the defense only had one sack, three tackles for a loss, and three quarterback hurries.
Third, the defense clearly struggled with their coverage. There were only a few throws made in which the defender was right there, so the receivers generally could catch and run on almost every throw. Texas A&M seemed to run out of the same set play after play, without hardly any motion or audibles, yet the defense seemed to struggle with who was supposed to be where. Even more challenging was the inside receiver on the three wide side seemed to catch pass after pass between the hashmarks. The bigger coverage question is was all this simply because of the inexperience of our backs, or is it because we failed to get any pressure on the quarterback, and how do we fix it?
Finally, it just seemed like the Gamecocks struggled knowing who was supposed to be where. Play after play, the players weren’t set yet when the ball was snapped, or there was obvious confusion on who was supposed to be on the field. When the coaches go back to look at the film, they will most likely find player after player out of place when the ball was snapped. At one point, they had to burn a timeout as they tried to sub out for the cornerback on the far side of the field and there was no way he was going to get off in time. All of this just led to confusion and a lack of confidence on the field at any point. When you watched A&M, they seemed to be in control, ready to go on every snap while the Gamecocks seemed to be constantly struggling to be ready.
The good news is the Gamecocks have a couple extra days to try and fix some of this before they play East Carolina on September 6. The bad news is these are some fairly big issues to fix, and East Carolina will certainly look to expose these flaws.