COLUMBIA -- South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier probably could not have imagined, with two games remaining in the regular season, that his offense would be this unproductive.
And yet, if USC beats The Citadel this week and Clemson on Nov. 26 -- with both games at home -- it will reach the 10-win mark for just the second time in school history. Even with a loss to Clemson, the Gamecocks will have a shot at win No. 10 in their bowl game.
Spurrier, who runs the offense, has had to live with the growing pains that came with offensive attrition throughout the season. While the Gamecocks' defense is the main reason USC is 8-2 and finished 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference, there is hope for the offense's future if it can build on the next two games and valuable pre-bowl practices.
Spurrier was forced to lean on inexperienced players at critical positions. Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia did struggle mightily at times early on and was demoted. But when Garcia was kicked off the team after the sixth game, Spurrier could lean only on Connor Shaw, a second-year sophomore who is still learning the nuances of drop-back passing.
Shaw's high school team in Flowery Branch, Ga., used an offense similar to West Virginia's spread system. Shaw lined up exclusively in the shotgun formation.
"I did some drop-back passing in the gun, but never under center," Shaw said. "It's just one of the things that I've had to work on here and make a good transition into. I've been in it for two years (at USC). I feel like my drops are fine. Seeing over linemen, seeing the field, scanning the field -- sometimes it's harder to do under center, but I'm working on it."
Shaw isn't the only reason the offense struggled recently, but the Gamecocks have struggled to throw the ball. The past four games, in which they are 3-1, they gained 289, 318, 207 and 299 yards. Last season they averaged 392 -- No. 47 nationally, 40 spots above where they are now. Shaw's yards per passing attempt in the past four games: 5.5, 4.8, 5.1 and 6.8. Garcia averaged 8.8 last season. You would think all of those numbers should improve against The Citadel.
"Hopefully," Shaw said. "We've been looking to do that for four weeks straight now. Maybe this will be the weekend. We'll see."
Young up front
Sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore suffering a season-ending knee injury was obviously a huge loss for the offense, but true freshman Brandon Wilds has filled in capably. A loss that perhaps has hurt just as much is senior left tackle Kyle Nunn, who was limited by a back injury then out for the year because of a blood clot in his leg. He played just four games.
That forced Spurrier to play two freshman tackles -- first redshirt freshman Cody Gibson, then true freshman Mike Matulis, who took over for Gibson as the right tackle in last week's win over Florida. Playing effectively on the offensive line as a true freshman is almost impossible, and both Gibson and Matulis have experienced hiccups in their pass protection.
"I do think that guys can understand and get fundamentally sound at run blocking a little bit more efficiently and quicker than they can at pass protection," said offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said. "Because that's one of the scariest things, especially for a tackle to be on an island by himself and know (the defensive end) can go run around and do a lot of different things."
Hope for the future
This week's game should provide Elliott a chance to give Matulis and Gibson more game experience, which they desperately need. The Gamecocks will lose left tackle Rokevious Watkins after this season, so even if Nunn gets a sixth year of eligibility, Matulis and Gibson will be in the mix for playing time next year. So, too, will Brandon Shell, a Goose Creek High graduate.
Spurrier hopes Shaw and the young tackles can get the most out of the next month and a half. He knows he will have Lattimore back next season, though his best receiver, Alshon Jeffery, is eligible to leave early for the NFL.
As Spurrier considers his offense's future, he wants to see it return to the aggressive, big-play attack that brought him so much success in the 1990s at Florida.
"I hope this is not going to be our style of offense," Spurrier said. "When I watch the tape -- up the middle, up the middle for one yard, two yards and stuff like that -- I don't like watching it, either, to tell you the truth."