USC’s offense should improve vs. Volunteers

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s sputtering offense will have a chance to get well on Saturday at home against Tennessee, and for the rest of the regular season, too.

While the Gamecocks allowed a season-low 183 yards in last Saturday’s 44-11 loss at Florida, they gained just 191, their fewest since 173 against Florida in 2008, when the Gators won the national championship. The anemic showing in Gainesville came a week after USC gained 211 yards in a 23-21 loss at LSU.

USC’s rushing yards the past two weeks — 36 against Florida, 34 against LSU — are its two worst performances since an 18-yard outing against Georgia in 2008. Against both LSU and Florida, USC ran for just 1.4 yards per carry. It’s no wonder USC coach and offensive play caller Steve Spurrier called the Florida game “a sad performance by a lot of us.”

The good news for the Gamecocks: Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) ranks No. 98 of 124 teams nationally with 445.3 yards allowed per game, and No. 91 with 186.4 rushing yards allowed per game.

USC’s two remaining Bowl Subdivision opponents after this weekend, Arkansas and Clemson, rank Nos. 91 and 93 in total defense and Nos. 38 and 102 in rushing defense. LSU is now No. 3 in total defense, Florida No. 7 and USC No. 9. Against the run, those three teams are now Nos. 9, 10 and 14. USC also plays Wofford, after hosting Arkansas on Nov. 10. The Gamecocks are now No. 97 nationally in total offense (354.9 yards per game). Last season, they averaged 373.5 yards and finished No. 73. In rushing offense, USC is now No. 83 (144.9), compared to No. 26 last season (192.1).

Because the Gamecocks trailed Florida 21-6 at halftime, they had to pass to claw their way back. USC’s run/pass ratio in the first half was 19/20. In the second half: 7/20. Tailback Marcus Lattimore, who didn’t start because of a bruised lower back/hip, ran just three times for 13 yards, all in the first half.

“When the score got out of hand there, we just felt like it would be stupid to get him hurt,” Spurrier said. “Our running game wasn’t going very far and our passing game wasn’t going very far. It just seemed smart to save him for the Tennessee game, so that’s basically what we decided to do.”

Spurrier said Lattimore is fine now and should start against Tennessee, whose third-year coach, Derek Dooley, is facing questions about his job security now that he is 14-18 with the Volunteers and 4-16 against the SEC. Tennessee lost, 44-13, last week to top-ranked Alabama and allowed 233 rushing yards (5.2 per carry).

In the past two games, USC has six lost turnovers (three interceptions and three fumbles, with all three fumbles and one pick coming at Florida). In the first six games, USC lost eight turnovers (two picks, six fumbles). USC lost 27 turnovers last year but just two in the final four games.

A bigger problem for USC’s offense the past two weeks: third-down conversions. USC converted just 3 of 13 against LSU and 3 of 14 against Florida. Before that, the USC was 35 of 77 on third down (45.4 percent). Their current 39.4 percent ranks No. 71.

“Right now, our third down offense is not very good at all,” Spurrier said.

USC has started five different offensive lines in eight games. After going with the same lineup for three straight games, the starters changed again at Florida. Mike Matulis replaced Corey Robinson at left tackle. Robinson had been there for the past four games. Matulis was there for Weeks 2 and 3.

Brandon Shell (Goose Creek High) started the first game at left tackle. Following a three-game absence from the starting lineup, he started his fourth straight game at right tackle against Florida. Matulis was the right tackle for Weeks 1 and 4 — the last time Matulis started before Florida, as he dealt with a shoulder sprain.

The biggest change was at left guard. Redshirt freshman Kyle Harris replaced A.J. Cann, who had started every game there since the beginning of last year, when he was a redshirt freshman.

Spurrier said the moves were made “just based off performance the week before,” and that Cann and Robinson might start again versus Tennessee. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott will likely make that call by the middle of the week at the earliest, Spurrier indicated.

Center T.J. Johnson has started all 48 games in his career, and on Saturday, he surpassed defensive end Cliff Matthews (2007-10) for the school record. Johnson has started all 35 games at center since the beginning of 2010.

Saturday’s loss snapped USC’s 10-game winning streak against Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Clemson, dating to a 2009 loss to top-ranked Florida. That also marked the last time USC lost back-to-back regular season games, before this current stretch. The Florida loss in 2009 was USC’s third straight that year.