COLUMBIA – The first sign of trouble came more than three weeks ago, between the hedges at Georgia.
WHO: Kentucky (1-3, 0-1 SEC) at No. 13 South Carolina (3-1, 1-1)
WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
TV: Fox Sports Carolinas
South Carolina’s defense was in the perfect situation. The Gamecocks had the Bulldogs at their 15-yard line, facing third-and-13.
One 85-yard touchdown pass later, game over.
USC coach Steve Spurrier vowed then he would get more involved with his defense, rolling up his sleeves to shore up the secondary. Three weeks later, the same problems exist.
The Gamecocks had three interceptions Saturday at UCF – more than doubling their season output – but took a step back with a complete meltdown in the game’s final 10 minutes. USC allowed two passes of at least 73 yards, allowing UCF to claw its way back into the game before losing 28-25.
On the season, South Carolina is the only BCS team in the nation to allow three pass plays of at least 70 yards. No other SEC team has even allowed three pass plays of at least 60.
“We’ve got some issues that we haven’t cleaned up yet, and we’re going to try to clean them up,” Spurrier said Sunday on his teleconference. “I’ll be helping out with the secondary. Obviously, we haven’t gotten it corrected yet, but we’ll keep working on it.
“We had some good plays, but we had some careless plays late in the game that almost cost us.”
Neither pass from UCF quarterback Blake Bortles was designed to go more than 30 yards. USC had dropped into a deep zone, trying to prevent big plays. Instead, busted coverage and missed tackles changed the game.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward was disgusted with his secondary’s lack of execution. He said the group played solid for most of the game, but everything fell apart down the stretch.
Making things worse, Ward knew the secondary’s breakdowns were basic things that should never happen.
“We’re letting guys get too wide open,” Ward said. “We’re trying to play zone coverage so that we don’t give a big play up like when we play man (coverage). So we tried to play zone, and we’ve got to play better zone. That’s way too many big plays in that scenario.”
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney wasn’t about to let USC’s secondary take all the blame after the game. To his left, cornerback Victor Hampton explained Saturday’s breakdowns. Hampton said the defense can play more deep zone. Like Ward, he said the group just had to play it better.
Part of that is getting more pass rush on the quarterback so there isn’t enough time to pass down the field. USC is second in the SEC with 12 sacks, three behind conference leader Arkansas. The Gamecocks have played one less game than the Razorbacks.
Clowney said the defensive line hasn’t been near as dominant as last season, when USC had five more sacks than any team in the SEC. The defense is on pace for have four fewer sacks than in 2012. Clowney said players need to burst off the line of scrimmage faster, and quell their frustrations better.
“That’s effort. You’ve got to give a lot of effort, man,” Clowney said. “You getting double teamed, chill. … Everybody gets it. So you’ve got to fight through that, you know. You can’t just come out there and walk around because you’re getting double teamed.
“I tell them, ‘Man, I don’t want to hear that.’ You’ve got to come off the ball full speed, and if you’re tired let somebody else come in and rush full speed. But don’t be out there not going full speed when you’re out there.’”
Clowney and Hampton went back and forth accepting blame for the big plays their defense has allowed, like two people fighting over the same slice of pie. Bottom line is much simpler.
USC’s defense has been mostly good this season. Big plays have left a bitter taste.
“We’ve all got to take responsibility for it,” Hampton said. “It’s not just DBs, it’s not just linebackers, it’s not just D line. It’s the whole defense. We’ve all just got to be on the same page. When we’re on the same page and executing, y’all see how we can play. Mentally, we’ve just got to be there all on the same page.”