ATHENS, GA. — Brandon Shell was caught by surprise Saturday night early in the third quarter of South Carolina’s predominantly awful 52-20 SEC loss at No. 7 Georgia. The senior left tackle from Goose Creek took an instinctive step toward the sideline after the Gamecocks failed to convert a third down on its own side of the field at Sanford Stadium with the Bulldogs ahead, 38-13.
Shell did an about face when head coach Steve Spurrier opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 31.
Welcome to the necessarily brave new Gamecock world, where freshman quarterback Lorenzo Nunez might convert on fourth down (as he did this time).
Or not; he failed on fourth-and-1 from the South Carolina 23 on the next possession.
A porous defense requires desperate strategy.
The Gamecocks set about fixing things in the sobering wake of a 7-6 finish in 2014. But after giving up over 300 yards in the first halves of back-to-back losses to Kentucky and Georgia, South Carolina is 1-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC for the first time since 2008.
New defensive coordinator Jon Hoke and a rebuilt line were supposed to make things better. And they have.
South Carolina gave up an average of 30.4 points per game in 2014.
It’s down to 30.3 three games into the 2015 season.
It’s not too early to wonder if the Gamecocks can improve quickly enough to win enough games to put together a bowl-eligible season.
“Well, we’re going to have to,” said Hoke, who worked in the NFL for 13 years between signing on at South Carolina and coordinating the Florida defense for Spurrier from 1999-2001. “We don’t have any choice. I’ll look at the tape and probably see the mistakes that we didn’t execute. We know what to do at times, but don’t execute it. We just have to continue to evaluate what we’re doing with the players, how we’re teaching, how we’re coaching. All those type of things. I think the plan is good. I think you’ll continue to see improvement, but it was not our night (Saturday night).”
Sure, it’s not easy when Nick Chubb is in the Georgia backfield and South Carolina’s identity on offense is a ball-control team alternating quarterbacks with contrasting skill-sets in an effort to create space for running backs and receivers.
A kitchen sink attack, in other words.
“Offensively,” Spurrier said, “I’m open to suggestions.”
But a juggling act on offense doesn’t excuse the South Carolina defense for allowing a quarterback named Greyson Lambert to complete an NCAA-record 96 percent of his passes (24 of 25).
Yes, the same Greyson Lambert who couldn’t earn a starting spot this spring at Virginia, not exactly an ACC powerhouse.
The hyped defensive line and coordinator combined to produce no sacks while defensive backs had trouble covering the most basic pass routes.
The slant, for instance.
Hoke seems surprised, confiding that he didn’t see a meltdown against Georgia happening. He thinks there is enough talent available to make personnel adjustments before South Carolina plays host to Central Florida on Sept. 26.
“Any time you get beat like this, you have to go re-evaluate who’s playing and why they’re playing,” Hoke said. “We’ll go look at it.”
It’s a good thing Central Florida uncharacteristically stinks. Head coach George O’Leary’s Knights, 0-3, lost to Furman on Saturday.
That gives the Gamecocks time to address issues before an Oct. 3 date at Missouri. But long-run SEC success depends on the basics of forcing punts, deflecting passes and keeping an ordinary opposing quarterback from thinking he’s home playing a video game.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff