COLUMBIA — Vince Lombardi, the late and legendary Green Bay Packers head coach, won with fundamentals.
“Football,” he said, “is only two things: blocking and tackling.”
That helps explain why Florida spilled through South Carolina on Saturday like Gatorade off a gator’s back. The Gamecocks gave up 367 rushing yards while coughing up a 17-point lead and falling to 5-4 with a 35-31 loss at The Swamp.
There are excuses galore, injuries mostly.
But while the SEC gauntlet is typically challenging and backup players are a part of college football, the Gamecocks — No. 102 among the world’s 129 FBS teams in run defense at 202.6 yards per game — rarely get mauled as they have this year.
They have given up 237 yards or more in four games in 2018.
That hasn’t happened in five games in one season since South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992.
Which means Saturday’s game against FCS foe Chattanooga is good for one thing: tackle practice for a Nov. 24 date at No. 2 Clemson, the top rushing team on the schedule.
“I just feel like we have to try to emphasize tackling more,” defensive end and team captain D.J. Wonnum said Tuesday.
Defensive-minded head coach Will Muschamp has stressed tackling a lot in his third season on the job. Just like he did in his second season, and first.
“Tackling is ‘want to,’” he said Tuesday. “You have to want to throw your face in the fan and enjoy it and we have to continue to recruit to that.”
It’s not too late to give up on tackling — or eight wins — this season.
It just looks that way.
South Carolina, No. 84 nationally in total defense, surrendered 271 rushing yards against Georgia, 286 against Missouri, 237 at Ole Miss and the 367 at Florida.
The Gamecocks have allowed 237 rush yards or more four times in the same season in three other years since joining the SEC: a 5-6 finish in 1992 under Sparky Woods, a 5-7 finish under Lou Holtz in 2003 and the 3-9 debacle as Steve Spurrier tapped out in 2015.
Sure, some foes do their damage through the air.
Why pass on this team if they can’t tackle?
Muschamp on tackling
Muschamp identified the two main problems: Injuries in the secondary (Jamyest Williams, Javon Charleston, J.T. Ibe and Nick Harvey) and a lack of production at linebacker.
“Those two positions have really hurt us as far as explosive plays,” Muschamp said.
These are tough times for tackling teachers.
Like bunting in baseball and making mid-range jump shots in basketball, tackling has become a lost art.
Among the reasons:
• Practice time is more limited
• Too many players seek the big highlight hit
• Spread offenses that open up the field dilute old-school running lanes
• Using more receivers on offense draws talent away from defense
• Players are more careful about drawing targeting penalties
• An emphasis on forcing turnovers
“We do sometimes make mistakes as far as trying to create a turnover instead of securing the tackle,” Muschamp said. “That’s a judgment and that’s a hard judgment when a 220-pounder is running at you.”
Linebacker T.J. Brunson, South Carolina’s leading tackler, said it isn’t necessarily hard to tackle the right way while also trying to force turnovers.
“Just because of the way we go about,” Brunson said. “First man in, wrap-up; second man in, come and get the ball. If you have an opportunity to go for the ball, you have to go for it but at the end of the day you have to bring him down to the ground.”
Poor Vince Lombardi; he must be cringing somewhere every few minutes of every Saturday (and Sunday).
“You’re seeing poor tackling across the country,” former Texas head coach Mack Brown said. “It’s concerning to all coaches. … You’re seeing heads down, seeing guys lunge. We’ve all got to do a better job of trying to teach tackling.”
That was six years ago.
Muschamp was a good tackler as a Georgia safety. He was the defensive coordinator on one team that won the national championship (LSU in 2004) and another that reached the national title game (Texas in 2010).
This coaching staff is full of intense guys with experience.
But your eyes don’t deceive you. The numbers don’t lie.
The Gamecocks, nine games into the season, tackle as poorly as almost any team in the country.
So forget any Chattanooga-specific game plan on defense.
Address the history of tackling.
Watch tackle tapes.
Bring in famous tacklers as guest speakers.
Repeat the Lombardi mantra.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff