After his huge game in Georgia's opener against Clemson, running back Todd Gurley is currently the Vegas favorite to take home the 2014 Heisman Trophy. And after the Gamecocks helped boost Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill's chances for the award in their own opening game, you can be sure that South Carolina is eager to avoid repeating the favor.
On the bright side for the Gamecocks, the Dawgs do not run the air raid. South Carolina's defense has begun the year against consecutive air raid teams, first facing Kevin Sumlin's brand of the system, then drawing the East Carolina Pirates, led by former Mike Leach disciples Ruffin McNeill and Lincoln Riley.
The results for the Gamecocks were not pretty. A&M threw for 511 yards at 8.5 yards per attempt. The Pirates added another 321 passing yards. It would seem that having an all-world player at one defensive end spot who required opposing coordinators to spend more time planning to contain him than attacking the rest of the defense ... is helpful.
The Gamecocks seem scarcely capable of defending the pass since losing the top two cornerbacks and two best defensive linemen from their 2013 team. Still, Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason only averaged five yards per each of his 26 attempts against Clemson, and the Dawgs aren't exactly another air raid machine.
What the Bulldogs do have is Gurley. And three backups who are almost as good (five-star freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for 103 yards on 10 carries against Clemson, and Keith Marshall averaged 6.49 per carry during his healthy 2012).
Pressure points in the Gamecock defense
South Carolina has shown three considerable weaknesses as a defense.
The first is a major struggle with an up-tempo pace by the offense. After having 10 days to prepare for another air raid team, the Gamecocks were still trying to line up and play football when the ball was snapped.
The other obvious, major point of issue for South Carolina's defense is in coverage, particularly in the middle of the field:
In this instance, the Gamecock linebackers show both a lack of awareness of where the receivers are and a lack of depth on their drops once they realize they've been fooled by play action. As a result, the quarterback has a window he can hit while on the run.
The very next snap, the linebackers again fail. They do nothing to disrupt the route of the slot receiver and again don't get the needed depth on their drops. The safeties' lack of ability to earlier pick up the slot in coverage should also disturb Carolina fans:
Don't be shocked to see Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and the Dawgs employ some quicker tempo and routes in the middle of the field. They can exploit a South Carolina defensive backfield that has been forced to be over-protective of its corners and has consequently seen the middle of its defense laid bare.
But the flaw in the Gamecock defense that Georgia is most likely to exploit is its shoddy perimeter play and late secondary run support.
South Carolina yielded a lot of easy yardage and early momentum to A&M with poor force play in the secondary, which presented soft edges for the Aggies' perimeter screens.
Good defenses force those ball carriers back inside and toward team pursuit. But the Gamecocks gave up the edge repeatedly. They also struggled, due to either confusion or alignment issues, to handle cutback lanes properly with secondary support:
This is a normal power run by A&M. South Carolina is dropping a safety late, so it should be able to outnumber the run and fill both the playside gap where the guard is pulling as well as the backside cut. However, backside linebacker T.J. Holloman abandons the backside cut despite the frontside safety already providing the extra defender needed at the point of attack. Tra Carson exploits that for a nice cutback run.
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These issues will be a big deal against Georgia.
How Gurley attacks the edge
It didn't take the Dawgs too long to get Clemson playing scared. They had a few primary ways of unleashing him and his running mates against the Tigers and will certainly re-use some of those tactics on Saturday.
The strength of the Georgia run game is in lateral run schemes that allow their quick offensive linemen to get moving and creating creases, their solid blockers at H-back and fullback to throw lead blocks, and for Gurley to plant and go.
He isn't the type to dance in the hole. He's going to make a decision and fire upfield like any other classic zone runner. His long, powerful legs allow him to hit the hole fast and hard, and he gets up to top speeds that make him a demon on the edge.
Georgia likes to unleash on the edge with a handful of schemes.
First are the power sweeps:
The fullback, Quayvon Hicks, gets to clear out the force player, while Georgia's quick OL concern themselves with sealing pursuing defenders. This play is liable to be a big problem for a Gamecock defense whose force players struggled to beat blocks by A&M's wide receivers, let alone pulling guards and fullbacks.
Then you have Georgia's various zone runs with a lead blocker. The most dangerous might be the inside zone runs that attack the defense with counter action in the backfield and then ancillary blocks on the backside perimeter:
Eventually the defense starts flowing hard to the edge to keep the back from continuing to get outside and running over defensive backs, which is when you get the cutback:
This example is another power sweep with two lead blockers that attracted a lot of Tiger attention to the perimeter. Too much attention. Gurley found that monstrous hole, and then it was all over.
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That's to say nothing of the plays in which the Dawgs have packaged perimeter screens to young athletes like Isaiah McKenzie with power runs on the edge. Have fun with that, Gamecock secondary.
Gurley and company are players that can be controlled, believe it or not, but the way to do it is with a disciplined defensive backfield that can take away angles before they get up to speed. A team that struggles to get lined up, play with discipline, or force the ball on the edge is going to get murdered when creases inevitably open up and Gurley explodes through.
Despite their high preseason ranking, the Gamecocks have taken a few big steps backwards on defense. Georgia should be able to run all over this team, to the horror of the Columbia faithful, and continue to propel the Bulldog running back to the top of the Heisman ballots.