Gamecocks offense more balanced than 2012, defense on wrong end of big plays

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (11) works under pressure from South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7) during the first half of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

South Carolina’s offense is better than last season. Its defense isn’t as good. Its special teams are … nothing special.

That’s the surface-deep, knee-jerk reaction at the quarter pole of USC’s 2013 season. The Gamecocks have played three games. It’s a small sample size, but enough to start forming some kind of analysis.

Whether that analysis is accurate, we won’t really know until season’s end. The No. 12 Gamecocks have already played their toughest game of the year, a road trip to No. 9 Georgia. Easier opponents — like Coastal Carolina — are on the horizon.

Then USC ends Nov. 30 with another tough test against

No. 3 Clemson. From now to December, the numbers will surely fluctuate.

More will be known about these Gamecocks one month from now. But, much more is known about this team than one month ago. Take a look at some statistical trends that, like a compass, could indicate what direction this season is headed — and how USC will get there.

It’s a boring stat, sure. It’s also revealing when it comes to the current state of USC’s offense. Quarterback Connor Shaw has come out slinging this fall, tossing at least 20 passes in each game. (Going back to last season, he’s thrown at least 20 passes in nine straight games.) It signals a different offense than the Gamecocks had early last season — less ground and pound, more balance. Shaw’s arm didn’t get a workout until midway through 2012. He threw 20 passes in a game just once before Oct. 13. This season, he’s on pace to throw 320 passes — almost 100 more than his junior year.

Big plays are back in USC’s running game, and the most significant rushing statistic shows how much of a difference a year makes. Last season, the Gamecocks tied for last in the SEC with 3.67 yards per carry. Against three BCS opponents, that number has risen to 5.48 yards per carry this fall. The biggest contrast can be seen with USC’s lead back. Marcus Lattimore, in all his greatness, averaged a healthy 4.6 yards per carry (143 carries) last season. In three games, Mike Davis has averaged an astounding 7.6 yards per carry (45 carries).

All those extra pass attempts from Connor Shaw are being put to good use. None of the Gamecocks receivers had 100 yards through the first three games last fall, unless you count Lattimore. This fall, three receivers have already exceeded triple digits — four counting Davis. With the absence of Ace Sanders, everyone wondered this offseason who’d step up in the passing game to help Bruce Ellington. The junior receiver has gotten plenty of support, especially from Shaq Roland (161 yards) and Nick Jones (130).

One major improvement from last season is how well USC’s offensive line has protected the quarterback. The Gamecocks were 13th in the SEC with 38 sacks allowed last season, one fewer than last-place Florida. This season, against three BCS opponents, USC is keeping its quarterback upright. The Gamecocks have allowed three sacks, fourth fewest in the conference. A year ago, they allowed three sacks in each of their first three games (nine total).

What’s wrong with Jadeveon Clowney? Everyone wants to know. Through three games, Clowney’s sack pace from last season has been sliced in half. It hasn’t affected the defense’s overall production. USC led the SEC with 10 sacks through three weeks, on pace for 43. It led the SEC with 43 sacks last season. Against Vanderbilt, four defensive linemen had a sack. Clowney’s presence allows everyone to contribute.

For a linebacker, it’s all about crashing the line of scrimmage to defend the run and prevent big plays. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said he’s looking for more production out of the middle linebacker position. One reason could be big gains allowed in the run game. USC has allowed 17 runs of at least 10 yards this season, tied for ninth-most in the SEC. At that pace, the Gamecocks will allow 73 runs of at least 10 yards — 15 more than last season.

USC’s defense has struggled creating turnovers. Nowhere is that more evident than in the backfield. Jimmy Legree’s interception may have saved the game against Vanderbilt, but it was the Gamecocks’ first of the season. Through three games last fall, USC had five.

South Carolina was mediocre with its return game last fall. This season, it’s downright awful. The Gamecocks rank 13th in the SEC with 18.1 yards per kickoff return — 3.55 yards fewer than 2012. They’ve been even worse on punts, ranking 13th in the league with 4.25 yards return — 10 fewer yards per return than 2012. Steve Spurrier has been displeased with USC’s special teams. A lack of big plays in the return game may be the biggest reason.