The whistle Steve Spurrier wore around his neck to his weekly press conference Tuesday was to illustrate his program’s campaign to fight childhood cancer.
It might also signal the Gamecocks’ staff getting back to coaching basics.
“We had a bad coaching game last week and it starts with me,” Spurrier said.
More specifically, South Carolina had a bad defensive coaching game, yielding 538 yards and 41 points in a loss to the Georgia Bulldogs that Spurrier said “was sorta sad watching.” It was ugly enough that two Gamecocks defensive coaches had to be separated by defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward during a sideline dust-up in the third quarter that was caught on national television.
“The way the players perform is a reflection on us coaches,” Spurrier said. “We didn’t look very good the other day.”
While Spurrier said the intra-staff rift was “hashed out” Sunday and all parties made aware that it won’t happen again, the work of getting prepared for Vanderbilt on Saturday and the season beyond was just beginning.
With the margin for error diminished with the loss to Georgia, what Spurrier doesn’t want is to see another team running through tackles, converting long third downs and exposing inattentive defenders on the field again. These aren’t the kinds of staples we’ve come to expect from a South Carolina defense that’s headlined by consensus all-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and was ranked 11th in the nation last season.
“All good defensive teams are good tacklers, are good on third downs and good against the run,” Spurrier said of his Gamecocks who were good at none of those things Saturday.
Spurrier’s reputation has always been as an offensive genius – the former Heisman-winning quarterback who brought the “Fun ‘n’ Gun” offense to the Southeastern Conference. He’s the guy who liked to “hang half a hundred” on his most intense foes.
But since he arrived at South Carolina, it’s defense that finally pushed the Gamecocks into the upper tier of the conference and worthy of being ranked in the AP poll a school-record 50 consecutive weeks. Sure, there have been some offensive highlights and stars along the way like Marcus Lattimore, Sidney Rice, Kenny McKinley and Alshon Jeffery, but it’s defense that has defined Spurrier’s Gamecocks at their best.
Even with guys like Connor Shaw and Mike Davis proving they can make big plays and score enough points, South Carolina shouldn’t be in the business of racing offenses like Georgia or Clemson to 40.
For that to change, the young defense needs to grow up behind Clowney.
“I look out there and see all those redshirt freshman and sophomore guys and I’m starting to wonder if we’re expecting a little too much from those guys,” Spurrier said after Saturday’s loss. “But it is a freshman-laden defense out there and they’re going to take their lumps. We’ve got to get creative.”
The most discouraging thing for the Gamecocks so far has been the lack of forced turnovers. Through two games South Carolina doesn’t have a single takeaway. A year ago they averaged nearly two per game.
“We’ve got to get a turnover before the year’s over somehow,” Spurrier said.
Georgia offered up a blueprint of how teams are going to attack the Gamecocks to try to minimize the power Clowney has to disrupt a game plan. It starts with establishing the run away from Clowney and backing that up with quicker passes or roll outs from the pocket.
“I just can’t do it by myself,” a frustrated Clowney said after the game. “You’ve got to depend on the other guys up front. If they run their way I just say, ‘Step up boys and be a man and take it on.’ ”
Spurrier believes a counter game plan is the answer.
“We need to line up on that other side, and put about five guys over there and anticipate that they are going to run over there,” he said. “That’s what we should do, but we couldn’t get lined up very well the other day. That’s my fault.”
While Vandy doesn’t have running backs the caliber of Georgia and has a new starting quarterback in Austyn Carta-Samuels, it does have a dangerously gifted wide receiver in Jordan Matthews – who Spurrier said reminds him of Rice.
Last season the Gamecocks registered five sacks in eking out a 17-13 victory at Vandy. The year before the Commodores only mustered 77 total offensive yards (including just 4 rushing) at Williams-Brice.
“It’s the same defense, just different names behind the defense,” linebacker Sharrod Golightly said.
Nobody on offense is pointing fingers at the defense for letting them down. They’ve learned the hard way that beating Georgia doesn’t ensure winning the SEC East, so they’ve got to work things out to flip the division script this year.
“We all know we are in this together,” offensive guard Ronald Patrick said. “If anything, when one side is doing better than the other, we pick each other up on the field. “
South Carolina has a lot to prove and even more to lose Saturday. Getting the players’ attention to regroup for Vandy should not be a problem.
“I think we are all looking at this as a statement game,” said Davis, who has broken 75-yard touchdown runs in each of the first two games. “Everyone’s angry, and we want to take it out on someone else. No one is chill. No one is laid back. No one is laughing about it. Some people even took it as an embarrassment.”
Now that anger needs to translate into results or the coaches will be blowing the whistle on anyone masquerading as a Gamecock defender.