South Carolina football: Newfound rushing attack to get stiff test at Georgia
There might not have been a better feeling this season for the South Carolina offense than to watch its running game churn out yards against Kentucky. The program’s long search for a feature back all of a sudden seemingly found 2 in Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster.
South Carolina against UK averaged 7.3 yards on 1st down, and rushed for 247 yards, as Dowdle and Feaster were named co-offensive players of the game with 102 and 107 yards, respectively. Consider the opponent, yes, however, it was the 2nd time this season with two 100-yard rushers in a game. Kevin Harris and Mon Denson topped 100 yards in a 72-10 win against Charleston Southern.
Coach Will Muschamp said one reason for the improved running game this season is the addition of first-year assistant coach Thomas Brown, who played at Georgia.
“Our running backs have had really good years, and a lot of that is their maturity, but I think it’s Thomas’ coaching and he coaches them hard,” Muschamp said on his media conference call, according to audio from SportsTalkSC.
South Carolina is averaging 203 yards rushing per game. That’s a 50-yard improvement over last year’s production.
Can they keep it going? The Gamecocks face arguably their stiffest test Saturday at Georgia, which is the only team in the nation that has not allowed a rushing touchdown this season. The Dawgs are allowing just 59 yards rushing per game. Only Vanderbilt has topped 70 yards against them. The ‘Dores rushed for 116 on 30 carries.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart isn’t satisfied. He is still looking for improvement from his defensive line.
“You know, we haven’t fit things real well all the time. We haven’t tackled the way we’re supposed to, especially in space, and some of that comes off the passing game, but we have to play better in space,” Smart said. “We have to be a better tackling team. That comes from perimeter runs from running backs. So I’m not pleased with how we have played, as far as contact and contact toughness. We have to improve on that and get better because that’s a hole when you watch football in general, tackling tends to go downhill as the season goes, and we can’t let that happen. A lot of that starts with our defensive line, controlling it from getting out of there.”
Muschamp has been asked this season about his play-calling philosophy, and he’s said he isn’t tied to being one particular style, simply what wins the game. That’s probably why he admitted against UK that the Gamecocks did have more hard call runs where there was not a pass option attached, than in the first 4 games.
But that play-calling was called into question after Muschamp and offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon went away from that running game bread and butter. Take the 3rd drive of the game against UK. South Carolina led 7-0, but QB Ryan Hilinski threw to WR Bryan Edwards for no gain on first down, was incomplete on 2nd down, and Chavis Dawkins caught a 7-yard pass before the Gamecocks punted.
That brings into the strategy how to deploy Hilinski at Georgia, which likely will be the most hostile environment of his young career. Fortunately, he’s already seen Alabama. The Tide defense has plenty of similarities to the Georgia defense, and Hilinski passed for 324 yards by completing 63 percent of his passes with 2 touchdowns and an interception in the loss to the Crimson Tide.
Georgia has the top-ranked rushing defense in the SEC, 5th in the nation. Unlike last year, they’re getting after the QB, too. The Dawgs already have 15 sacks in 5 games. They had just 24 all of last year.
When QBs have time, however, they’ve found some success against the Dawgs’ secondary.
Georgia is 62nd in the country in pass defense, which is 7th in the SEC, as it allows 219 yards per game. Notre Dame QB Ian Book had arguably his 2nd-best game of the season against Georgia, with 275 yards on 61 percent passing with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Last week, the Dawgs gave up 2 TD passes to Tennessee freshman Brian Maurer, including a beautifully thrown 73-yard strike to Marquez Callaway.
Notre Dame and Tennessee couldn’t get their running game going, however.
As the Gamecocks look to continue that new-found momentum they developed against UK, this week is a chance to further solidify that offensive identity behind the experience running backs as Hilinski continues to develop against elite SEC defenses.