Gamecocks regroup by going back to basics

USC's Sidney Rhodes tries to tackle Texas A&M's Speedy Noil during Thursday night's game. (Douglas Rogers/Special to The Post and Courier)

COLUMBIA - Lorenzo Ward had never seen anything like it - not just in his six seasons as South Carolina's defensive coordinator, but in all his years as a defensive coach.

And it wasn't just the yards, although there were plenty of those - 680, the most ever rolled up against any Gamecocks team in a single outing. It was the plays, a whopping 99 of them, which Texas A&M used to run up and down the field and thoroughly outclass South Carolina in a 52-28 stunner Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium.

"That's the most plays I've ever been a part of since I've been a defensive coach, period," Ward said. "That's way too many plays. We've got to get them off the field on third down, and we didn't. That's my fault. I didn't get them ready to play."

With a potent East Carolina offense coming to Williams-Brice next Saturday, the work begins to correct the breakdowns that allowed unsung Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill to record the greatest individual passing effort in Texas A&M history. That starts Saturday, in South Carolina's first practice since an opening-night debacle that will force the Gamecocks back to basics.

"We've got to start with technique and fundamentals. Tackling is fundamentals," Ward said. "You've got to do it live, and so we're going to have to create some live situations. We've got to get better at tackling, because East Carolina is going to spread us out just like Texas A&M did."

The loss of three starters on the defensive line - No. 1 overall NFL Draft selection Jadeveon Clowney among them - made mounting a pass rush more difficult than South Carolina expected, and put immense pressure on a secondary with two new starters of its own.

The Gamecocks' depth at linebacker - which prompted the use of a 3-4 alignment on occasion - was negated in large part by a chronic inability to finish tackles in the open field, allowing Hill to roll up 511 passing yards primarily though quick screen passes in the flat.

"I don't know if it would have mattered if we'd have played a 6-6 defense with 12 out there, if that would have helped that much," said South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier. "But we've got some coaching decisions to make to see if we can't find a pass rush somehow. I don't know, maybe that offense they've got is that good, and they're going to go up and down the field against everybody. Maybe they're that good."

And it could have been worse.

"They were kind to us. They ran out the clock," Spurrier said.

In the aftermath, Ward said he expected no drastic changes in personnel or scheme - the Gamecocks even knew what Texas A&M was going to do, the defensive coordinator added. South Carolina simply couldn't execute well enough to slow it,

"All the players who played (Thursday) will continue to play," Ward said. "But we've got to get better. . Guys have to tackle, guys have to line up and challenge here. That's what we have to do here."

South Carolina's first season-opening loss at Williams-Brice Stadium in two decades also ended a run of 18 straight home victories, the longest active streak in the nation - until Thursday. Gamecock defenders admittedly were caught off guard by the effectiveness of Texas A&M's offense, leading Spurrier to wonder if his players spent too much time reading preseason predictions.

A media poll had projected the Gamecocks to win the SEC East - a task that became considerably more difficult just one game into the season.

"We won't get much favorable press, and that's probably going to be good for us," Spurrier said.. "We don't have to worry about any more win streaks. It was a good one while it lasted. And now we can go back to trying to be a decent team, and not be in the paper too much."

That begins with returning to the practice field Saturday, when the Gamecocks will try leaving a forgettable Texas A&M game behind.

"Short-term memory," said linebacker Skai Moore. "We're going to come back to work on Saturday and make a lot of changes. Work hard Saturday, working on tackling. Come to work all week, and making changes all year from here."