COLUMBIA — Will Muschamp says he wants balance on offense.
That doesn’t mean run half the time and pass half the time.
At South Carolina, it means get some kind of positive gain from running the ball, which has been a problem in each of Muschamp’s three seasons.
“I think if you look back 20 years ago when I was a really young coach, we would line up and say we’re going to run it 50 percent, pass it 50 percent and you could actually do that,” USC quarterbacks coach Dan Werner said. “But we may call a run where there’s way too many guys (in the box) and it’s not a good play. But we were hard-headed so that’s what we’re going to do.
“Now with these new type of plays that we have, we call a run, they got too many in, we throw a slant, it may be incomplete, but it may also pop for a 20-yard gain. They’re just skewed nowadays. Got to live with it and die with it.”
The rise of the spread offense and the run-pass option (RPO) has kept the game evolving. The Gamecocks have embraced it, tried to tailor their offense around it with a quarterback (Jake Bentley) geared to handle it.
At times it’s worked. By October of last season, USC was throwing the ball a lot and running it effectively, putting up impressive numbers.
Then came the final two games. The Gamecocks threw the ball to the other team, could barely run two feet without falling and didn’t score a point in the season’s final six quarters — a 28-3 win against Akron and a 28-0 loss to Virginia.
“The biggest thing was turnovers. Not like we didn’t do tempo stuff after that,” offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon said. “We got to do a good job of doing it right every time. If you got 10 guys doing it right and one guy steps wrong, does it wrong, that’s a big deal.”
Heading into 2019, USC has a lot of talent to keep the up-tempo attack running. Bentley returns with veteran receivers Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith. As they have the past two years, the Gamecocks can take their pick of running backs from Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner, Mon Denson and other intriguing prospects among the younger players.
But what’s the plan going to be? Is there a way to truly achieve balance when everything may change after the first play, or a running back again can’t stay off the disabled list?
“When they have to play both the run and the pass on each play, I feel it puts any quarterback in a comfort zone,” McClendon said. “Games that we did that were (Bentley’s) better games, games that we didn’t probably weren’t his best outings.”
It’s not as simple as going into the game with a plan for half-run, half-pass. McClendon can’t chart run plays and then start calling passes when there are too many tallies under his run sheet and not enough under the throws.
Mike Leach, the Washington State head coach who utilizes the Air Raid offense, put it simply.
“There’s nothing balanced about the 50 percent run, 50 percent pass,” Leach said last year, “because that’s 50 percent stupid.”
The Gamecocks want to be able to run the ball.
An effective running game takes a lot of the onus off the quarterback, controls the clock and keeps the defense on its heels by being unpredictable. It’s easy to say USC should just throw all the time if that’s what it does best, but then it might as well tell the opponent what’s about to happen.
So the Gamecocks keep trying to establish a consistent running threat, and keep coming up short. They've been stuck near the bottom of the SEC rushing statistics the past three years.
Injuries have played into it. Dowdle, the team’s most dynamic back, has had three surgeries in three years and was limited all spring recovering from a groin injury. The inability to find one or two workhorse backs hasn't helped.
They have experienced personnel this year, and they have an overall system that worked for much of the season last year. “We go by the game plan, what the defense is giving us,” Werner said. “That’s where you look first.”
They don’t have to be 50-50 on offense as long as they’re getting substantially more than zero from the run.