COLUMBIA -- After the players filed in to his meeting room Monday, South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott looked at them and talked about last Saturday's 44-28 loss at Arkansas, in which the Gamecocks allowed a season-high five sacks and couldn't establish a downfield passing game, largely because of the line's ineffectiveness.
"It would be real easy for me to come in here and just raise hell on you guys and tell you how bad we are, and I'm bad as a coach, and all that stuff," Elliott recalled telling his linemen.
Instead, Elliott talked to them about the "great opportunity" they have in Saturday's Southeastern Conference finale against Florida at Williams-Brice Stadium. It is essentially a must-win if USC wants to return to the SEC championship game. It is also an important stage for Elliott's line to show it can respond to a poor performance, and for the Gamecocks to show they can capably throw the ball against a quality defense.
Not that the line is entirely to blame for USC's lack of a passing game
recently. Quarterback Connor Shaw bears some responsibility, and opposing defenses are doing their best to eliminate USC's best receiver, Alshon Jeffery.
Lately, Jeffery has found few opportunities to catch balls other than screen passes. He has been thrown to 17 times in the past three games (wins over Mississippi State and Tennessee, before Arkansas). Six passes fell incomplete. The gains of the other 11 passes to Jeffery netted a total of 60 yards, with the longest going for nine yards. This from a player who finished second nationally last season with 26 catches of 20-plus yards. This year, he is 42nd with 10 such catches.
All told in the past three games, Shaw attempted 71 passes. He completed 46. Just 12 gained at least 10 yards, and three of those gained at least 20. Through nine games, USC finds itself 92nd nationally with just 22 completions of 20-plus yards. The Arkansas loss was especially troubling for USC's passing offense. The Gamecocks did have two completions of 20-plus yards, but after three quarters, their longest completion had gained just 12.
"We were very sad the other night, trying to throw it around," said USC coach Steve Spurrier, who calls the offensive plays.
Coaches talk about how offense "starts up front," with the offensive line. So when analyzing USC's downfield passing struggles, it is worth noting, first and foremost, that the Gamecocks played the past five games without fifth-year senior left tackle Kyle Nunn, a returning starter who is out for the season because of a blood clot in his leg.
With Nunn starting the first four games this season, the Gamecocks allowed four sacks, and no more than two in any one game. Since then, they have allowed 17.
Elliott tried replacing Nunn at left tackle with true freshman Mike Matulis, in the Auburn loss. But that didn't work. So Rokevious Watkins moved from right tackle to left, and redshirt freshman Cody Gibson started at right tackle. Gibson was benched at Arkansas after defensive end Jake Bequette shoved him around, and Gibson is competing for his job this week with Matulis. Elliott anticipates giving Gibson and/or Matulis help in pass protection on the right side.
"There's going to be about 85,000 (fans) here Saturday," Elliott said. "That's how much help we're going to need. They're all going to be behind that right tackle Saturday at 12 o'clock. Yeah, we're going to have some backs and some other guys in there (to aid protection)."
Despite the line's protection problems, Spurrier said he still threw "a bunch" of downfield passes at Arkansas. Sometimes, he said, the receivers didn't get open. Other times, Shaw tucked the ball and ran too quickly.
Getting the ball downfield won't be any easier against Florida. The Gators rank No. 11 nationally in passing defense (182.8 yards allowed per game). And while they don't have a ton of sacks (16), USC receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said the Gators' pass rush gets a lot of pressure, so opposing quarterbacks don't have much time to stand in the pocket and throw.
"What makes them effective in the secondary is their D-line is really good," Spurrier Jr. said. "(Florida's defensive backs) are not out there covering guys all day long."
So the Gators are able to play more man-to-man pass coverage -- something the Gamecocks have seen infrequently this season. More man coverage should mean more opportunities for Jeffery to use his 6-4, 229-pound body against smaller defensive backs. No starter in Florida's secondary is taller than 6-1 or heavier than 206 pounds.
"Tennessee played a big, soft zone (coverage) the whole game," Spurrier Jr. said. "They said, 'Alshon will not beat us,' and he certainly did not. He has not seen a lot of true bump-and-run, 'me and you all day' (man coverage), and he'll get some of that this week … (Defenses) have mixed it up enough to give him a hard time. But he's had other chances that we had a chance to get the ball to him and we didn't."