COLUMBIA — The notion that a team coached by Steve Spurrier could win 10 games in back-to-back regular seasons while having an offense that moved the ball less effectively than half the teams in college football was once laughable.
Spurrier’s teams at Florida in the 1990s thrived on big offensive plays. But as he tries to break a school record by winning his 65th game at USC tonight at Clemson in the regular-season finale of his eighth year, Spurrier again does not have a dominant offense. Far from it, in fact.
In his first seven seasons, USC’s national rankings in total offense were Nos. 100, 20, 77, 97, 82, 47 and 73. The Gamecocks’ yards per game those years: 316, 395, 372, 316, 347, 393 and 373. When they did have a strong offense, 2006 and 2010, they won, going 8-5 in 2006 and 9-5 in 2010.
But in 2011 and 2012, the Gamecocks have pushed their program to new heights despite lacking a prolific offense. This season, USC ranks No. 94 with 365.9 yards per game. Yet the Gamecocks are 9-2 and can still equal last season’s program-best 11-2 record.
Tonight, USC likely will need major contributions from its offense in order to keep pace with Clemson’s offense, one of the country’s most productive.
“I think (Clemson is) a lot better offense than they were last year at this time,” Spurrier said. “Our offense needs to play better. We were pretty ugly the last game, didn’t block very well. If we’re going to have a chance, we have to play some offense.”
USC’s last game was a 24-7 win over Wofford in which the Gamecocks gained just 293 yards. Their two offensive touchdowns came on drives of 34 and 51 yards. USC has 41 offensive touchdowns this season. The average length of those drives: 59.8 yards. Because of defense and special teams, eight of those drives covered 40 yards or fewer.
USC has also scored four defensive touchdowns and one on special teams this season. That, along with short offensive touchdown drives, explains why USC ranks No. 41 nationally in points per game, with 31.8. USC was No. 42 last season (30.1 points per game).
While defense has undoubtedly been USC’s strong point since the start of 2011, the offense showed up in some big spots.
Tonight will be USC’s fourth game this season against a team currently ranked in the top 25. USC’s offense flopped at No. 6 Florida and No. 8 LSU, gaining 191 and 211 yards, its two lowest outputs of the season, while losing 44-11 and 23-21. But those are also the two best defenses USC has played this season.
Clemson’s defense is the worst among USC’s four ranked opponents in 2012. No. 3 Georgia’s defense is third in that group, and currently No. 20 nationally. The Gamecocks gained 392 yards in a 35-7 win over the Bulldogs, with offensive touchdown drives of 63, 69, 76 and 89 yards.
One of USC’s best offensive showings of the past two seasons came in last year’s 34-13 win over Clemson. USC out-gained the Tigers 420-153. It was the third-most yards USC gained against a Bowl Subdivision opponent in 2011.
Quarterback Connor Shaw was brilliant that night, just as he was against Georgia this year. Against the Tigers, Shaw threw for 210 yards and ran for 107. He hung 162 passing yards on Georgia and 78 rushing. But Shaw has nursed a sprained left foot since Oct. 27. If he plays, it could limit his mobility tonight, detracting significantly from one of his best assets.
He stamped his name on USC history with last season’s Clemson game. Tonight, he could improve to 2-0 against the Tigers, equaling the career win totals of Stephen Garcia and Steve Taneyhill. Even Todd Ellis won just once against Clemson (1-1-1).
Only Tommy Suggs went 3-0 against the Tigers, from 1968-70, USC’s last three-game winning streak in the series before its current one. If Shaw makes it four straight USC wins for the first time in 58 years, maybe he will change Spurrier’s perception of his own offense.
“We’re not a high-powered offense at all,” Spurrier said. “We’re just sort of a slug-it-out type bunch right now that can make a few yards here and a few yards there.”