VIDEO BOX SCORE | OWN GAME
By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier has been a household name in college football for over two decades. The “Head Ball Coach” got his first collegiate head coaching gig at Duke in 1987 and proceeded from there to Gainesville, where he elevated a Florida program that had never won a recognized Southeastern Conference title to the forefront of the national scene.
Given his track record – one that includes a national title and six SEC crowns – Spurrier’s success at South Carolina is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is the way that his team is attaining that success in recent seasons.
Spurrier’s teams at UF were famous for their propensity to score in bunches. The HBC’s signature “Fun-N-Gun” offense routinely shredded defenses in the 1990s, lighting up scoreboards while churning out prolific passers like Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel and Rex Grossman. Those days are now in the rearview mirror, and the game is vastly different from when Spurrier’s Gators were reigning over the SEC with six conference titles in a 10-year span.
But in recent years, Spurrier has shown that he is able to evolve along with the game.
At a glance the 2012 Gamecocks, currently ranked No. 3 in the nation following Saturday’s win over Georgia, do not closely resemble Spurrier’s squads of the past. Gone are the Fun-N-Gun attack and weekly 300-yard passing games; in are zone read plays, relentless pounding on the ground from tailback Marcus Lattimore, and a ferocious defense.
If the SEC has taught us anything during its six-year streak atop college football, it’s taught us that defense still wins championships. Of the last six BCS National Champions – Florida (’06, ’08), LSU (’07), Alabama (’09, ’11) and Auburn (’10) – Gene Chizik’s Auburn team was the only one to finish outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.
While offense is still in fashion – see West Virginia and Oregon, for example – there is no substitute for an elite defense. Spurrier has taken note, and South Carolina has improved markedly on that side of the ball in recent seasons; the Gamecocks jumped from 46th total D in 2010 to third last season, and are once again among the best in the nation in that category (No. 11) through six games in 2012.
The USC defense showed just how good it has become against UGA this past weekend. Georgia was ranked No. 5 in the country coming into Columbia, with an offense scoring 48 points per game behind the SEC’s best running game. But the Gamecocks’ defensive front, which has put itself in the conversation with Alabama and LSU as potentially the best front in all of college football, proceeded to terrorize the Dawgs all evening.
UGA’s “Gurshall” combo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall was held to 76 yards after averaging 192 yards per game as a tandem in their first five outings. The always efficient Aaron Murray was just the opposite in Columbia, hitting on only 11 of his 31 attempts with an interception. Many of Georgia’s season-low 224 total yards came after South Carolina’s starters had retired for the evening, and its only score of the 35-7 win came with less than two minutes remaining.
Spurrier has created this monstrous defense by stocking it with freakish athletes, many of whom are from SEC country.
At 6-foot-6, 256 pounds, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was easily hurdling cut blocks from UGA backs and has become arguably the most feared pass rusher in the game as a sophomore. At 6-8, 267, Devin Taylor ranks in the top five in school history in sacks and tackles for loss at the other end spot. The Gamecocks’ five defensive tackles, led by starters Byron Jerideau and Kelly Quarles, average 301 pounds across the board and provide a rock-solid wall against the run.
The South Carolina defensive backs possess the type of speed and physicality that allowed D-coordinator Lorenzo Ward to use a Cover 1 scheme to successfully shut down the UGA air attack, and the front seven overwhelmed Murray with consistent pressure. The HBC’s work on the recruiting trail has helped the Gamecocks fortify the defense and keep pace with the heavyweights of the SEC.
Increased speed across the board has led many teams to employ spread offenses, and now Spurrier has assembled the type of defense necessary to contain that speed while also maintaining the size and strength to defend a downhill run game.
Perhaps the most appropriate figure to illustrate Spurrier’s modified offensive approach is the number 74. Connor Shaw has only thrown 74 times in his five starts this year, completing nearly 76 percent of those throws. When he has thrown, he’s had help from wide-outs like Damiere Byrd and D.L. Moore, both of whom snagged catches for big gains to help the Gamecocks sprint to a 21-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game last week.
Lattimore has continued to shoulder the load on the ground with 91 yards per game and nine TDs. Shaw has been effective as well, with 281 yards of his own using zone reads and designed runs that would never have been featured during Spurrier’s time in Gainesville. Unlike the mid 90’s Florida teams of old that ran up the score, South Carolina used the ground game to salt away the win with two ground touchdowns in the second half against Georgia.
Spurrier still possesses a great offensive mind, but he has changed his scheme to fit his team’s strengths and be effective against defenses that are better suited to stop his old schematic approach. The HBC has constructed the 2012 Gamecocks to wear down opposing defenses while relying on its own stout D to smother offenses and provide a safety net if USC finds itself in a low-scoring battle.
With a grueling slate of competition still lying ahead, South Carolina will continue to be tested with games at No. 9 LSU and No. 4 Florida in the next two weeks and a season-ending date with a potent Clemson offense in Death Valley.
How the Gamecocks perform the rest of the way remains to be seen, but Spurrier’s “HBC 2.0” blueprint led to a statement performance on Saturday that bodes well for the second half of the season.