COLUMBIA — One quarterback lined up split wide to the left. Another quarterback became a lead blocker. A tight end ran an end zone pattern as an H-back. And what was designed as a throw-option reverse turned into a seven-yard touchdown run.
Who would’ve thought South Carolina would become a more inventive offense with a former offensive line coach running the show? But that’s been the case under interim head coach Shawn Elliott, who took over after Steve Spurrier resigned on Oct. 13, and has revived a once-dormant USC attack with resourceful play options that have generated season highs in total offense in each of the past two games.
The difference was evident last week at Texas A&M, where the Gamecocks scored their first touchdown on a reverse run which used quarterback Lorenzo Nunez as ball-carrier, quarterback Perry Orth as lead blocker, and tight end-turned-H-back Kevin Crosby as a potential throwing target. USC scored twice more on misdirection plays and was perfect in the red zone, leading Tennessee head coach Butch Jones to refer to South Carolina as “dangerous” entering Saturday’s 4 p.m. game.
“It is a dangerous football team. They’re flying around, they’re having fun, they’re putting it all out there, they’re playing with very good effort,” Jones told reporters in Knoxville, Tenn. “They’re coming in here expecting to win.”
Through two games, at least, it’s been a startling transformation. In its final three SEC contests under Spurrier, USC struggled to rush the ball effectively, struggled to convert in the red zone, and relied almost exclusively on the feet of Nunez — who ended up injured as a result. Elliott and offensive coordinator G.A. Mangus reinstalled Orth as starting quarterback, dug deep into the playbook, and unearthed an array of sets which make full use of USC’s better athletes — like that first touchdown play against Texas A&M.
“It’s definitely more fun, trying out things like that, seeing if they work,” Orth said. “We’ve got nothing to lose, so we’re going to go out there and play as hard as we possibly can, and see what happens.”
For a team needing a miracle run to salvage bowl eligibility and an interim coach trying to state his case for the full-time job, nothing is out of bounds. In a loss at Texas A&M much closer than most anticipated, USC scored touchdowns on a reverse, a fake reverse, and a quarterback option run. While Tennessee (4-4, 2-3 SEC) will be much more aware of USC’s newfound penchant for offensive creativity, the Gamecocks (3-5, 1-5) say they still have deeper to dig.
“We’ll add stuff as we go,” Mangus said. “But at the same time, it’s all about making sure we know what we’re doing, and putting guys in position to give them the best chance to be successful. That’s what it’s all about. What we have is what we have, and we’ve got to be able to give them a chance to be successful, and last week was a stepping stone.”
Elliott wants USC’s offense to be unpredictable. After a seat-of-the-pants effort in the wake of Spurrier’s departure which was enough to beat Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks’ game plan at Texas A&M was likely more indicative of the type of attack Elliott and Mangus plan to oversee.
“You’ve got to keep people on their toes,” Elliott said. “... You can’t run the same inside zone play over and over again and expect great results, you just can’t. It’s worked out in the past for us, but I seem to think that had we been a little bit more diverse, it could have worked out a lot better. So we’re going to continue to do that, and add wrinkles here and there. It’s not that we’re changing a lot of stuff, we’re just adding maybe a motion, a block. Something is always going to be changing.”
Jones knows full well how varied USC’s offense can be — he watched Pharoh Cooper score rushing, passing and receiving touchdowns in the Volunteers’ comeback victory over the Gamecocks last season. Saturday, there’s no telling where the All-SEC receiver — or Orth or Nunez, for that matter — might line up.
“Elliott has really done a very, very good job of getting this team ready to play,” the Tennessee coach said. “They’re playing with great effort, they’re playing with a lot of confidence, they’re playing with a lot of energy.”