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Gamecocks' offense again no-shows in toothless loss at Texas A&M

Zeb Noland

Zeb Noland had no room to operate against Texas A&M's withering defense. (AP/Sam Craft)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Got to score to win. And when South Carolina’s defense has a better chance to score than its offense, it’s going to be really hard to win.

The Gamecocks were hammered 44-14 by No. 17 Texas A&M on Oct. 23, their punchless offense unable to protect quarterback Zeb Noland so he could throw and their running game again stuck in neutral. The Aggies (6-2, 3-2 SEC) weren’t overwhelming, sticking mostly to their tailbacks and tight end Jalen Wydermyer, who has always torched USC, because they didn’t have to be tricky or even pull out a desperation third-down play.

They were content to stack their defenders at the line of scrimmage and dare USC to run while sending three or four rushers on each play to smash the immobile Noland. The Gamecocks (4-4, 1-4) couldn’t get anything going offensively, continuing a season-long trend, and their defense wore down under the Aggies’ relentless assault.

Texas A&M scored its first touchdown on a punt return and led 31-0 at halftime. The Gamecocks mustered 15 yards through three quarters and ended with 185.

“We got to look at why we played like we did in the first half. That was about as bad a first half as it could be, in all three phases,” coach Shane Beamer said. “We got to utilize this week off to one, get healthy, and two, get better.”

USC was a hurting team checking into the game after playing eight straight weeks so this week’s bye couldn’t come at a better time. Yet Beamer won’t get any rest, as he will again hear the cries from his fan base to do something, anything, to fix this offense.

There are not expected to be any staff changes midseason because it would do more harm than good, but there will have to be answers after the year. Of the Gamecocks’ final four games, none are unwinnable; but if USC can’t score, how can there be any chance?

“We certainly got some issues we got to figure out. We’ve got to perform better. We’ve got to be able to block,” Beamer said. “We’re an SEC football team, too. We’ve got to be able to block when they rush four.”

What went right

Jaylan Foster intercepted his nation-leading fifth pass of the season, on a play where he arrived with another defender at the receiver upon the catch, and the ball was batted in the air. Foster somehow stuck with the ball’s path as it fell through the receiver’s hands, then the other defender’s hands, to retrieve it before it hit the ground.

A walk-on scout-teamer two years ago, Foster has a legitimate chance to become an All-American.

Jason Brown relieved Noland in the fourth and immediately connected with his transfer teammate, E.J. Jenkins, for a completion. The two played together at St. Francis (Pa.) two years ago. The drive ended in MarShawn Lloyd’s first career touchdown.

Brown also threw another touchdown to Traevon Kenion in the fourth quarter. He finished 8-of-14 for 84 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

A week after booting a 70-yard punt, Kai Kroeger blasted a 73-yarder.

M.J. Webb blocked a field goal.  

What went wrong

The Gamecocks’ offense had to look a lot different with Noland under center, since he wasn’t going to be performing designed QB runs like Luke Doty would. It figured USC would have its line play maximum protection, so Noland could have time to pass.

In a word: No.

The Aggies’ defensive front ripped through USC’s line like soup through a fork and pounded Noland numerous times. To his credit, he kept getting back up, even after a first-quarter pop left him snow-angel'ed on the Kyle Field turf.

“When you perform like we did tonight, you got to evaluate everything. It’s easy to point to the offensive line … we didn’t play great anywhere,” Beamer said. “We all had a hand in it.”

The defense couldn’t stop the run and started missing tackles. Special teams, while Webb blocked a field goal and Juju McDowell had a 36-yard kickoff return, allowed the punt return for a score after four tacklers missed Ainias Smith at the catch.

“We just got to find things we’re good at,” Noland said. “I think we truly just got to look at ourselves internally. We continue to beat ourselves.”

Turning point

The punt return on the Aggies’ first touch of the game told USC that it was over. The Gamecocks knew they would face a hard-enough time stopping Texas A&M’s offense or getting through its defense without a special-teams gaffe.

With everybody fresh and in position, the Gamecocks still couldn’t bring the returner down. That had the bus driver scurrying to start the engine.

Looking ahead

The Gamecocks are off on Oct. 30 before hosting Florida on Nov. 6.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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