COLUMBIA — South Carolina is 6-0 for the third time ever primarily for the same reasons it won 11 games for the first time in 2011 — running and defense.
The Gamecocks rank No. 45 nationally in rushing yards per game (181.5) after having 230 on 51 carries in Saturday’s 35-7 win over Georgia — both season highs. Though tailback Marcus Lattimore ranks just No. 40 nationally with 91.5 yards per game, his nine rushing touchdowns are tied for fifth-most in the country.
Since Lattimore arrived in 2010, and especially since Connor Shaw became the Gamecocks’ starting quarterback midway through last season, Steve Spurrier has relied on running more often than he did earlier in his coaching career.
USC is running 65 percent of the time this season, compared to 64 percent in 2011 and 57 percent in 2010. In Spurrier’s first five seasons at USC (2005-09), the Gamecocks’ run percentages were 51, 52, 46, 48 and 50.
But the next two weeks, USC plays at LSU and Florida, which rank No. 15 and 17 nationally in run defense (98.5 and 103.8 yards allowed per game). Those are the best run defenses USC has played so far this season.
Of course, the Gamecocks are sturdy against the run, too. They rank ninth nationally with 83.8 yards allowed per game. They are tied for first with 25 sacks. They are No. 11 in total defense (278 yards per game) and No. 4 in scoring defense (10.5 points per game). Their opponents have scored four touchdowns in 14 red zone trips — a 28.6 percentage that ranks No. 4 nationally.
“We really address when people get into our red zone,” said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. “We spend extra time. We dedicate two days a week to our goal-line defense. Back in the day, they said ‘bow your necks,’ and that’s what we want to do.”
Last season, USC finished third in total defense and 10th in scoring defense. Georgia was the best offense USC has played so far this season. But before Georgia’s final drive against USC’s reserves — a possession that gained 75 yards and resulted in a touchdown — the Bulldogs had just 149 yards and were averaging 2.7 per play.
South Carolina receiver Ace Sanders on Monday was named SEC co-special teams player of the week. He returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown Saturday. It was Sanders’ second career punt return for a touchdown.
Center T.J. Johnson was named SEC offensive lineman of the week. Johnson graded 86 percent against Georgia, with seven knockdown blocks. He allowed zero quarterback pressures. USC had just four plays for minus yardage on 61 snaps against Georgia, including only one sack.
CBS will use its six-day option on the game time for USC’s Oct. 20 trip to Florida, as well as for Alabama-Tennessee and LSU-Texas A&M.
That means the kickoff times for those games won’t be announced until after this weekend’s games. If USC-Florida isn’t selected by CBS for its 3:30 p.m. game, it will air on ESPN, either at noon or between 7 and 7:45 p.m.
USC is ranked third in the Associated Press poll, Florida fourth. If the Gamecocks win at LSU on Saturday night and Florida wins at Vanderbilt, USC-Florida is essentially guaranteed of being the 3:30 p.m. CBS game.
It would also be South Carolina’s first ever game between two top five teams. The previous low combined rankings for a USC game was in 1987, when No. 8 USC lost at No. 2 Miami, the eventual national champion.