COLUMBIA — Ever since last season, South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles has teased his father, Buddy, who played offensive line for the Gamecocks from 1984-87.
Kelcy did it when USC beat Navy last season, because the Midshipmen ended the Gamecocks’ 9-0 start in 1984, when they were ranked No. 2. Kelcy did it after last season, when the Gamecocks won their bowl game to finish 11-2, surpassing the 10-2 record of that 1984 Black Magic season, as it was called.
“After we broke the record (for most wins in a season), I took the (bowl) ring home and I put it beside his little ring,” Kelcy said. “And I told him, ‘You can look at it every day you wake up.’ I joke around with him about it, but he just tells me he wants me to break all the records.”
Again last week, these Gamecocks bettered a school record set in 1984, when they beat Georgia for their 10th consecutive win. Now, they are ranked third entering Saturday night’s game at ninth-ranked LSU — their highest ranking since the 1984 Navy game.
Halfway through the regular season, the Gamecocks are 6-0, and if they make it 7-0 by not losing immediately after reaching the top three in the polls, as the 1984 team did, Kelcy Quarles will have one more thing to tease his dad about. And Buddy will gladly take it all.
Here is an assessment of how the Gamecocks are undefeated at the midpoint of a season:
The Gamecocks are relying on the run even more than they did last season. Sixty-five percent of their plays — though clearly not the actual play calls — have been runs. Quarterback Connor Shaw has attempted 74 passes and completed 56. Tailback Marcus Lattimore might rank just No. 40 nationally in rushing yards per game (91.5), but he has made an impact in the biggest games, running for 109 against Georgia, 110 against Vanderbilt and 120 against Kentucky, including 108 in the second half.
USC is No. 64 nationally in yards per game (406.2) and No. 32 in points per game (36.3).
Few defenses in college football this season have been better. USC is No. 11 in yards allowed per game, No. 4 in points allowed, No. 9 in rushing yards allowed, No. 13 in third-down conversion percentage allowed and tied for first in sacks. A big reason for that is defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, whose 6.5 sacks are No. 5 nationally. Defensive line coach Brad Lawing said that when New York Jets coach Rex Ryan was at USC’s pro day in the spring, Ryan told coach Steve Spurrier that if Clowney turned pro after last season — when he had eight sacks as a true freshman — he would have been a first-round NFL draft pick. If Clowney keeps this up, he will be the No. 1 overall pick in 2014.
The good: USC punt returner Ace Sanders, who ran one back 70 yards for a touchdown against Georgia, is No. 17 nationally with 15.5 yards per punt return. The previous five years, USC ranked Nos. 68, 115, 74, 103 and 46 in punt returns. Sanders’ production is important because USC’s defense has forced its opponents to punt 36 times, the 21st most in the country.
The bad: The Gamecocks have given up kickoff returns of 48, 52 and 53 yards, but none for touchdowns because receiver Damiere Byrd made the score-saving tackle on all three. USC ranks No. 101 in kickoff return yards allowed (23.8 per return).
Spurrier, long reliant on the pass, is playing to his team’s strengths for the second straight year by leaning on the run. New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward’s simplified approach, with fewer pre-snap checks for the secondary than USC used last season, is freeing his best athletes to make plays. Perhaps most important, the staff’s recruiting has given the Gamecocks the talent to compete with the Southeastern Conference’s best teams — which they haven’t always had.
Can the Gamecocks finish the regular season undefeated? Yes, especially if they win at LSU and Florida. Will they? That’s harder to say. Few, if any, college football teams play tougher opponents, in tougher settings, than the Gamecocks will the next two weeks.
Regardless of what happens at LSU, the Florida game could end up deciding the SEC’s Eastern Division. But so far, the Gamecocks have done everything they’ve needed to do, and are coming off their most impressive win, 35-7 over Georgia.