COLUMBIA — Lorenzo Ward arrived at his office Friday morning and flipped on video of South Carolina’s Thursday practice — a 31-play scripted run-through that is designed more to ascertain his players’ mental focus than tax their legs.
As the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator watched the video, he saw so many mental errors that he thought it was his defense’s worst Thursday practice of the season.
The timing for it was awful. Ward knew he needed to do something to sharpen his players’ minds before Saturday’s game against Missouri. The Tigers’ rapid-paced, quick-passing offense would require the Gamecocks to get lined up quickly, and they could ill afford the mistakes made in practice.
So Ward decided to let the Gamecocks see their mistakes for themselves. He sat with them, letting them process what they saw. And when the video review was finished, Ward felt much better about how Saturday’s game would unfold.
“After seeing themselves and knowing they had a good football team coming here, they felt like they didn’t want to go out and get embarrassed,” Ward said.
The seventh-ranked Gamecocks answered Ward’s challenge by beating Missouri 31-10 and continuing their push toward an undefeated record entering the enormous Oct. 6 home game against Georgia, with only next week’s trip to hapless Kentucky in between.
South Carolina (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) got a marvelous performance from quarterback Connor Shaw, who completed 20 of 21 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns, and connected on 20 consecutive throws to finish his day. But it was Ward’s defense, and timely special teams plays, that enabled USC to put the game away by halftime, when it led 21-3.
“We came out here and put on a show,” said linebacker Shaq Wilson.
Two teams in college football last season allowed fewer yards per game than USC, and Alabama and LSU played for the national championship. It is too early still to determine if the Gamecocks can be that stingy again, but they gave Missouri next to nothing on Saturday.
USC outgained the Tigers (2-2, 0-2) 396-255 for the game and 231-131 in the first half. Missouri gained 53 yards on its first five possessions and did not crack midfield until its sixth. By the time the Tigers breached USC territory again, on their third drive of the second half, they trailed 28-3. Missouri first reached the end zone with 17 seconds remaining in the game.
“It was a game where I think it was evident that we were a little stronger than Missouri,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. “Our defensive guys were really fast out there.”
Ward said USC’s defensive line — among college football’s best — was able to pester Missouri quarterback James Franklin despite receiving blitzing help from other defenders just once all afternoon. This left more players to sit back and limit Franklin to short passes. He completed 11 of 18 for 92 yards and was sacked three times.
Missouri went 2 of 12 on third down, including 0 of 5 in the second half. The Tigers threw seven times on third down and never converted.
Just once in the first half could they move at their desired fast pace. That 76-yard drive yielded a field goal. But USC had already struck with two touchdowns — on drives of two plays and four yards, and two plays and 37 yards — that were set up by Ace Sanders’ 49-yard punt return and forced fumble by linebacker Reginald Bowens.
Even when Missouri got that field goal with 1:20 left in the first half, USC immediately answered with Bruce Ellington’s kickoff return to midfield and, four plays into the possession, a perfect 23-yard touchdown lob from Shaw to Sanders, who easily beat press coverage. Shaw’s performance was admirable, considering he left last week’s win over Alabama-Birmingham after a hit aggravated the crack in his right (throwing) shoulder blade.
He returned Saturday with his shoulder feeling better and his mind set on dispelling the notion that Missouri could upset the Gamecocks as they aimed for their second win over a fellow SEC East Division team — critical in the pursuit of a division title.
“We wanted to prove what the SEC is all about,” Shaw said, in a not-so-subtle reference to Missouri debuting in the league this season.
While Shaw felt comfortable, Missouri’s offense never was. Ward said that’s because USC almost always lined up quickly enough that the Tigers couldn’t catch them confused. He said that’s why the Tigers could never push the tempo like they wanted to. He said it was his defense’s best game of the season, two days after its worst Thursday practice.