COLUMBIA — Steve Spurrier has arrived at acceptance.
The Head Ball Coach could have bristled Saturday night as he spoke with the media following his team’s seven-point win over woeful Kentucky. He could have looked at the fourth-quarter score — Kentucky’s edge, 21-8 — and been “negative,” as he calls it.
“I told myself I’m going to quit being negative,” Spurrier said. “I hope I haven’t been too negative. I’ve just been giving facts out.”
The facts are astounding.
In its past three games, USC has allowed 51 fourth-quarter points — more than any other SEC team has allowed all season. That came against Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky, hardly a strenuous stretch on the schedule.
The trend is getting worse, not better. Going back to its game at UCF, the Gamecocks have allowed touchdowns on five of their past six fourth-quarter defensive series.
“I don’t know if we can change it or not,” Spurrier said. “We’re coaching our tails off as hard as we can. I just don’t know if we can change it or not.”
Spurrier is going to do everything he can to try.
On his teleconference Sunday, Spurrier said he’ll announce defensive personnel changes later this week. He expects there may be “some new starters here and there.” Coaches will also be less forgiving of mistakes.
The expectation is simple, Spurrier said. Players must follow their assignment, no getting off track. If they don’t, they won’t play.
“That’s part of coaching,” Spurrier said. “I’m a firm believer in what John Wooden said: ‘If players don’t play the way you ask them to play, you’ve got to put them on the bench.’ Simple as that, and we’ve not done a good job of doing that. So we’re probably going to do that a little bit for the next game.”
The fourth-quarter breakdowns have dropped USC’s defensive numbers like an anchor. The Gamecocks are allowing 25.8 points per game, ranked 10th in the SEC. They’re sixth in total defense, allowing 365 yards per game.
Spurrier has expressed his frustration with the defense this season, not just Saturday night. But he firmly supports defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.
With the Gamecocks’ defense sputtering statistically to the bottom half of the SEC — a place it hasn’t been in five seasons — Spurrier offered a stiff defense of his coordinator.
“I’ll tell you what kind of job he’s doing,” Spurrier said, a bit edgy. “We were 11-2 last year, and he won the bowl game the year before as defensive coordinator. So his record as defensive coordinator is 16-3, and if you check the history of South Carolina football, he’s the winningest defensive coordinator percentage-wise in the history of the school. So, that’s how he’s doing, OK.”
It’s not that South Carolina has only played poorly this season. In each of its past three games, the Gamecocks have scored at least three straight touchdowns. At times, they look like a potential top 10 team — if not top 5 — capable of beating any opponent in the country. But USC has struggled sustaining its solid play for 60 minutes.
Junior defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said the defense has to “go back to the drawing board” to fix its issues. Sophomore running back Mike Davis admitted his team’s inability to hold a big lead is frustrating.
“I think that’s something we just have to work on as a team,” Davis said. “We’re probably gonna have to come a little bit closer, work hard in practice. Other than that, it’s still frustrating, but it’s a team effort. So we’ll get through it.”
So far, USC has gotten through its late-game issues unscathed. If its issues continue, that could change. After the UCF game, Ward said the Gamecocks will eventually run into a team that will beat them if they don’t improve in the fourth quarter. That would be hard to accept.
“We’re still winning, so that makes it not as tough,” Spurrier said. “We don’t like it, but if that’s who we are, that’s the kind of team we’re going to be all year, it looks like. We’re going to try and change it, though.”
Follow reporter Ryan Wood on Twitter @rwood_sc.