Sapakoff: O-line the key to the Gamecocks’ 2013 finish
COLUMBIA — It’s Connor Shaw’s team. Mike Davis will win the Southeastern Conference rushing title. Fans at Williams-Brice Stadium shout “BRUUUUCE” whenever wide receiver Bruce Ellington touches the football.
There are few headlines for offensive linemen. No chants.
But No. 14 South Carolina is 7-2 this season thanks in large part to a larger than usual line that has gradually improved.
That the guys up front took a step sideways Saturday in the Gamecocks’ 34-16 victory over Mississippi State is a bit of a concern. South Carolina went 1-for-11 on third down and compiled only 307 yards of offense.
“You guys watched it,” head coach Steve Spurrier said when asked about blocking. “I don’t know if we were that bad or we just didn’t have a lot of good plays on or just what happened. But obviously we had a lot of 1- or 2-yard runs or no-gain runs.”
A strong finish — that is, success against Florida and Clemson — starts with tackles Brandon Shell and Corey Robinson, guards A.J. Cann and Ronald Patrick and centers Clayton Stadnik and Cody Waldrop.
That means less falling apart, as at Tennessee and for frustrating stretches Saturday, and more consistency.
314.6 pounds per blocker
There is evidence that a starting line averaging 314.6 pounds per player can do its part down the stretch.
Davis leads the SEC in rushing, and is averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
The Gamecocks have allowed 1.9 sacks per game (ninth in the SEC entering Saturday). That’s high, but partly because Shaw, one of the least turnover-prone passers in college football, prefers holding the ball to making big blunders.
And you don’t lead the nation in fourth-down conversions made without timely blocking.
“I think our offensive line has played well throughout the season,” Shaw said. “I didn’t have my best game (Saturday). One of 11 on third-down conversions, the only way you win with that is when the defense forces four turnovers, so I thought our defense played real well. But the offensive line played solid.”
The Gamecocks were less imaginative than usual against wobbly Mississippi State. Spurrier said South Carolina’s attack “sputtered,” but that’s a relative term in Starkville. The Bulldogs are 4-4 with victories over Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green and Kentucky.
True, Mississippi State grabbed a 7-0 lead. But it didn’t last as long as the South Carolina marching band’s halftime “Thriller” salute to Michael Jackson.
Shaw, still a bit hobbled with a sore right knee, had only three carries (including a sack) for 14 yards in losses.
Pushing Mike Davis
Here’s something South Carolina did better this week than in last week’s double-overtime win at Missouri: 4.7 yards per carry, up from 2.1 in the other Columbia.
The offensive line got an indirect roar of approval from the crowd with a mild buzz of disapproval in the second quarter after Shaw, with plenty of time, failed to find an open receiver on 2nd and 12 from the Mississippi State 27.
Of course, Davis believes.
“Those guys up front, they’re the ones that push me,” Davis said of his blockers. “I’ve probably been down and they always come to me and say, ‘One more play, one more broken tackle and you’ll be gone.’ Those guys up front, they deserve more credit.”
South Carolina’s defense has made nice strides since struggling to hold a lead against Kentucky in a 35-28 victory a month ago.
Davis is the most talented Gamecock running back since George Rogers.
Shaw is the consummate winner.
Add blocking consistency and there’s probably no blocking out a third straight 11-2 season for South Carolina.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff