Gamecock Defense Responds To Muschamp Challenge

COLUMBIA,SC - SEPTEMBER 17: Head Football coach Will Muschamp of the South Carolina Gamecocks celebrates his team during the first quarter of their game against the East Carolina Pirates at Williams-Brice Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Mary Ann Chastain/ Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

South Carolina Head Coach Will Muschamp didn’t hold back in the post-game press conference after a disappointing 27-14 loss to Mississippi State.  He lamented the poor tackling of his defense and even called out a few players for their poor performances. He issued a challenge to his team as a whole to be tougher and more physical.  Despite the big yardage numbers East Carolina put up this weekend, it is safe to say his players responded.

He was asked why starting cornerback Chris Lammons was benched during the game in Starkville. The man known as Coach Boom had a simple answer.  “You have to tackle to play football at the University of South Carolina.”

You have to tackle to play football at the University of South Carolina.”

Stepping Up to the Muschamp Challenge

Chris Lammons heard his coach loud and clear, responding with 8 tackles including a sack.  He also added an interception on the goal line against East Carolina. The Gamecocks defense was not perfect Saturday, and at times it wasn’t very pretty, but they made big plays when needed.  ECU was able to move the ball most of the day.  They were not able to turn yards into points though.

Lammons was asked about his response to Coach Muschamp’s challenge after the 20-15 win at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday.  The junior defensive back replied, “I left some plays out there (against Mississippi State) that he knows I could’ve made. He just called me out because he wants the best for me, so I just had to step it up.”

South Carolina forced four turnovers, three of which occurred inside their own 5 yard line. Jamarcus King had the other touchdown saving interception, and Antoine Wilder forced a fumble that D.J. Smith recovered in the end zone. Chris Lammons also forced a fumble with his first quarter sack.  Dante Sawyer recovered it and the Gamecocks turned good field position into a field goal from Elliot Fry.

Tackling a Work in Progress

The tackling was better this week, but there was a lot of room to improve after such a pitiful showing versus Mississippi State.  The defense was able to stifle the ECU running game for the most part.  This helped stall most of the Pirate’s drives once they reached the red zone.  The quarterback runs and plays from the Wildcat formation still remain a concern.

There were two contradicting plays that emphasize the importance of good tackling.  In the first half, safety Jordan Diggs had a chance to stop a drive with a tackle in space on fourth down. He tried to go for a big hit with his shoulder, and the receiver bounced off him and picked up a first down.  Late in the third quarter, cornerback Antoine Wilder used a perfect form tackle to stop an ECU ball carrier inside the 10.  He subsequently forced a fumble on the play, which Carolina recovered in the end zone, ending another scoring threat.

Adjusting His Strategy

Coach Muschamp said multiple times during the spring, summer, and fall that this Gamecocks team lacked team speed.  This concern has shown in how they have defended so far this season. South Carolina does not play the in-your-face bump and run man coverage Muschamp’s teams are usually known for.  Due to the lack of team speed, they have played much softer in the secondary. The strategy seems to be to prevent teams from creating open space or beating them downfield.

That strategy worked on Saturday. East Carolina piled up 519 yards of offense, but was only able to score 15 points. Along with forcing three red zone turnovers, South Carolina also blocked a short field goal. The Gamecocks got off to a fast start offensively, scoring 17 points in the first 7 minutes of the game. Thanks to some timely defensive plays, that short burst of offense was enough to get a victory.

Muschamp knows his offense is a work in progress. With a true freshman quarterback, and multiple other first year players being counted on to contribute, consistency is key.  His defense has been solid so far this season, allowing only 13 points in the second half through three games.  Bigger challenges still lay ahead though, with five ranked teams remaining on the schedule.

Getting Off the Field

Defensive depth was also an issue heading into the season.  The defense was on the field for 90 plays, but was somehow able to play its best at the end of drives.  Coach Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson have used most every player at their disposal.  The ability to end drives and get off the field is crucial for any team, but especially one with the depth issues South Carolina has.  So far this year has yielded mixed results, as the first 3 opponents are 15-43 (35%) on third downs and 2-5 on fourth downs.

There were a few missed opportunities against ECU to stop drives before they reached the red zone.  A combination of missed tackles and bad penalties thwarted those chances. The Gamecocks will need to grow in these areas because they can’t continue to stay on the field for such long stretches.  Carolina has, however, shown an ability to tighten up inside the 20, which will prove crucial as the offense struggles to find its way.

The Gamecocks defense has been solid thus far, sitting at 2-1 and allowing only 17.3 points per game.  It is still nowhere near where Coach Muschamp wants — or needs — it to be for this program to challenge in the SEC.  That will take time and recruiting, adding depth and team speed will be focal points in off season.  This coaching staff will have to work with what they have for now.  If the current players can continue to improve and make some timely big plays, then consistency and execution will only get better.  Most importantly, they showed a willingness to respond when the coach issues a challenge.

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