COLUMBIA — Brad Lawing has coached defensive linemen for all but one season of his 30-year career. He is now in his seventh season of his second stint at South Carolina, having also coached the Gamecocks’ defensive line for 10 seasons, from 1989-98. But Lawing has always been curious about trying something entirely different within his profession.
“I’ve always said that when I die, when I come back, I’m going to come back as an offensive coordinator and run the option,” he said. “You don’t have to meet at night because everything is already done. It’s already built in.”
Lawing was embellishing a bit, of course. But much of an option offense’s plan does not change from game to game, and during the game, a lot depends on the quarterback’s decisions — keep the ball himself, hand it to the fullback or pitch it to another back.
Those are the three basic tenets of the run-focused triple option that the Gamecocks will try to stop today, when they host Wofford in the season’s final home game. Wofford is 8-2, ranked No. 9 in the Football Championship Subdivision and “runs the option as good as anybody in the country,” Lawing said. Last season, the Terriers went 8-4 and narrowly lost to Clemson, 35-27.
The option is more common in the FCS than in the Bowl Subdivision, so the Gamecocks rarely see it, which makes preparing for it this week “a tremendous challenge,” Lawing said.
They played it twice last year. First, they escaped with a 24-21 win over Navy in which the Midshipmen ran for 274 yards (5.8 per carry). Two months later, they beat The Citadel 41-20 and allowed 241 rushing yards (4.5 per carry). Wofford is averaging 6.1 yards per rush this season. For a defense, these option games are all about surviving.
On the Monday after The Citadel game, USC head coach Steve Spurrier asked Lawing, “What defensive linemen played good?” Lawing’s response: “Coach, I’ve never played the option and been able to sit here on Monday and say a defensive lineman played good.”
Lawing said option teams “take your defensive linemen out of the game,” because they must commit to stopping the fullback dive up the middle, leaving the linebackers and defensive backs to handle the quarterback keeper and pitch plays, for the most part. Wofford boasts a brutally efficient fullback, Eric Breitenstein, who has carried 216 times, for 7.1 yards per rush.
“If you don’t stop the fullback, you’ll never see the quarterback and the pitch phase,” Lawing said. “We’ve got to do a great job with that. That’s the whole core.”
Defending the option can also be mentally taxing because it requires players to commit only to their specific responsibility — stopping the dive, quarterback or pitch — and resist the urge to let their eyes and feet wander because of the option’s misdirection aspects.
“You’ve got to put your eyes in the right place when you play an option team because there are a lot of moving parts,” said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.
“It comes down to a factor of being disciplined. If you don’t let all those moving parts affect your eyes, then we’ll be successful. If we do, if the moving parts get us, then we’re going to be in for a long day.”
The Gamecocks were off before last week’s game against Arkansas, and because the option is so unfamiliar to many of their defenders, the coaches decided to use a couple practices during the off week to work on it.
Even the Gamecocks, who faced Navy and The Citadel last season, have seen that Wofford’s option isn’t the same as those teams’. Sometimes, the Terriers line up under center and run the traditional triple option. Other times, they line up in shotgun formation and run zone read option plays similar to what USC sometimes does with quarterback Connor Shaw.
“What they do is almost like two or three offenses,” said USC linebackers coach Kirk Botkin.
That will make this game difficult for Botkin’s linebackers, because, before the snap, “we’ve got to make sure of what we’re looking at” to determine responsibilities, Botkin said.
Though the Gamecocks are expected to beat Wofford and enter next week’s trip to Clemson aiming for their second straight 10-2 regular season, they understand how relentless Wofford’s option will be today, and the issues that could pose.
“That one play that you relax, they’ll gash you for a couple yards,” said spur outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman. “You just can’t relax.”