COLUMBIA — Mississippi quarterback Jordan Ta’amu had a great game against South Carolina last week, but it’s not like he was firing spirals into slivers of space. The Gamecocks’ defense was spread out, relying on its base concept of not allowing big plays, so there were plenty of gaps for an Ole Miss receiver to catch the ball unbothered before a defender got to him.
The statistics were unsightly. Ole Miss had more than 600 yards of offense, nearly 400 through the air. How do the Gamecocks explain that?
By pointing out the only numbers that matter: USC 48, Ole Miss 44.
"You think Tom Brady cares how he won a Super Bowl?” cornerback Keisean Nixon asked. “You win, you win, no matter what you gave up."
Nixon had a point. Yet the Gamecocks’ passive approach to passing defense didn’t go unnoticed, by USC’s staff or the opponents they will face.
The philosophy is that yards aren’t points, so if opponents are marching up and down the field but can’t get into the end zone, that’s good. It may look uglier than an empty glass of buttermilk while it’s happening, but if the opponent doesn’t score, it's OK.
The Gamecocks switched to more press man coverage in the fourth quarter and Ole Miss was stuffed on its final four drives, when Ta’amu had a minor injury and seemed to be gimpy and backup Matt Corral was 0-for-2 passing on his one series.
Heading to Florida, USC is down to just seven experienced defensive backs after losing two more to injuries against Ole Miss.
So can USC play press man for 60 minutes against the Gators?
“Well, if they run a deep ball, whether you're in zone or man, you're going to get tired. That's part of it,” coach Will Muschamp said. “So we'll figure out what we need to do to give us the best chance.”
The defense may get a bit of a break due to a bad break for Florida. Backup QB Kyle Trask was under consideration to start this week after Feleipe Franks was benched in a dreadful loss to Missouri last week.
But Trask broke his foot in practice and is out for the season, meaning Franks will almost certainly start. He’s thrown for 189 yards over his last two games, each a loss.
USC should have to focus more on stopping the Gators’ rushing attack than Franks’ receivers, whether they’re open or not. Then it’s always a question if Franks can get the ball to them.
The Gamecocks’ defensive backs have discussed all week that they have to play smart, avoid penalties and try everything they can to avoid injury. If they have to play press man for four quarters, they feel capable.
“I feel like we can,” safety Steven Montac said. “I feel like that would be best for us.”
They can align however they like as long as the scoreboard alignment stays in favor of the Gamecocks.