COLUMBIA — Regardless of the opponent, stopping the run is paramount for success in the SEC.
So, even though Georgia has the top rushing offense in the conference (250.4 yards per game), and the 11th-best in the country, South Carolina’s defensive beliefs won’t change much from previous weeks.
Clearly, the No. 1 priority for the USC defense on Saturday is finding a way to stop the Bulldogs’ running game. If UGA is as productive on the ground as it was against Tennessee (282 rushing yards; three touchdown runs of 51 yards or longer), USC’s chances of winning the game are slim.
Nobody understands that better than the Gamecocks’ defensive staff.
“Our philosophy won’t change from week-to-week, and that’s to stop the run first, play physical, make good tackles and contain explosive plays,” USC secondary coach Grady Brown said Tuesday after practice. “You can’t let an opponent dictate your philosophy or your thought process as a defense. We put countless hours into what our philosophy should be.
“We just have to go out and practice well and play up to our ability more times than not. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Georgia is the only SEC team that has thrown and run for more than 1,200 yards. The Bulldogs have rushed for 1,252 yards and thrown for 1,428 yards, and are averaging 8 yards per play, by far the highest figure in the league. The second-highest team (Texas A&M) is averaging 6.9 yards per play.
Only three conference teams have reached 1,000 yards both running and throwing — UGA, Ole Miss and LSU. How balanced is the Georgia offense? It had 282 yards rushing and 278 yards throwing against Tennessee last week.
“They can run the ball, they throw it well and they have a lot of good players,” Brown said. “They have a very good offense. They have a good quarterback with a good scheme. We need to have a good week of preparation and go out and really be on our P’s and Q’s and recognize certain things and communicate. We have to be ready to make physical tackles on those two (running) backs. We have to go out and play a complete game.”
Brown hopes the return of senior cornerback Akeem Auguste bolsters the USC defense. Auguste stepped onto the field for just the second time since the start of last season last week at Kentucky and finished with four tackles.
“Akeem did a good job. He played some special teams and helped us out in that area,” Brown said. “He played about 20 snaps or so on defense. He plays very aggressive. They caught some balls on him, but the coverage was tight. He’s a real physical player. He’s going to bring some of the things we need in the secondary at the cornerback position. We’re happy to have him back. I’m glad he was out there and he’s back feeling good.”
Brown winced when asked if USC came out flat (translation: lacked excitement) about playing Kentucky. Only when the team fell behind 17-7 at halftime did a sense of urgency kick in.
“As a coach, I’m excited about any opportunity to coach in a ballgame,” Brown said. “So, I was excited for Vandy, ECU and UAB and for Kentucky as well. The excitement level is there every day. This week we’re playing a different opponent that does some things really well on offense. You just have to go out and prepare yourself physically and mentally to be ready to roll and be top-notch this weekend.”
Brown chalked up the lackluster performance by the USC defense in the first half at Kentucky (the Wildcats had 173 yards at halftime) to trying to survive on the road in the SEC.
“Kentucky practices every day just like we do,” Brown said. “They have scholarship players and players that will go on to the NFL. They came out and just played better than we did in the first half. They’re in the SEC, too. But we came out and played better than them in the second half. Some games you have to come back in.
“I can’t say we were looking ahead, thinking about Georgia or anything like that. I just think Kentucky went to work every day last week like we did. We played up to our abilities in the second half and it showed.”
Spurrier on SEC teleconference
By this point, everybody knows that running back Marcus Lattimore has enjoyed tremendous success against Georgia the past two years. In last year’s game, USC rushed for 253 yards (including Melvin Ingram’s fake punt), 176 of which was credited to Lattimore. But USC struggled throwing the ball as quarterback Stephen Garcia completed 11-of-25 passes for 142 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. Will USC be more productive through the air against Georgia this year?
“We have not thrown the ball up the field against these guys very well at all the last two years when we’ve won,” Spurrier said Wednesday on the weekly SEC coaches’ teleconference. “Hopefully, we can hit some passes here and there. But we’re probably a team that runs a little bit better than we throw.”
How will the secondary do against a talented Georgia wide receiver corps now dealing with the season-ending knee injury to Michael Bennett?
“We’ll find out. And we’ll find out if we can pass-rush them,” Spurrier said. “It all goes together. If the quarterback has time back there, they certainly have some excellent receivers. Aaron Murray is an excellent quarterback and he can hit them. We have to cover them and we have to rush them, simple as that.”
Richt expects heavy dose of Lattimore
Based on how the last two games have gone, Georgia coach Mark Richt expects that the Bulldogs’ defense will have to find a way to tackle Lattimore early and often. And for good reason, considering the well-documented high degree of success the junior running back has enjoyed against UGA in the past two years.
“The closer the game, the more you’re going to see Lattimore,” Richt said on Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “They’ve had games where some were close, but they ran away in a lot of the games. I don’t think they felt like they had the need to do that (run Lattimore a lot). I’m sure coming off the injury, they wanted to take their time and be wise.
“From what I’ve seen just from the first game to this past game, he’s gaining confidence in himself and they’re gaining confidence in him that he’s well and back to 100 percent. Sometimes when guys rehab, they work harder than they do if they don’t have an injury.”
When Richt first came into the SEC in 2001 as Georgia’s coach, he thought he could run the same fast-paced offense that brought him success at Florida State. But over a period of time, he learned that style doesn’t necessarily translate to wins in the SEC.
“When it came to matchups, there weren’t a lot of times we were out-matching people with our skill people vs. their defensive skill people,” Richt said. “I learned in a hurry that style points don’t really mean much. Winning and losing is what means the most in this league, and I think our fans appreciate a good three-point victory as much as a 20-point victory.”
Richt sees Spurrier going through the same transition with the Gamecocks as USC has shifted to a run-first philosophy behind Lattimore and dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw.
“I think coach Spurrier is doing what good coaches do and that is take your personnel, find out what they do best and give you the best chance of winning, regardless of what you might think is a fun and exciting thing to do,” Richt said. “Winning is more exciting than chunking the ball around the yard if you are not getting the victories.”
• Spurrier said Tuesday that Georgia’s defensive game plan is no secret: “We’ve got to block and obviously they’ve got to stop the run. Everyone we play has the same plan, really. When you only throw 15-20 passes a game, the other team can’t say, ‘Let’s stop the pass.’ They’ve obviously got to try to stop Marcus and the run game. So we realize we’ve got to run the ball. All the statistics prove that the team who runs the best usually wins. That’s our best formula, to run the ball a lot more than we throw it. We expect them to get a bunch of guys up there and try to stop the run first. Everybody does, really.”
• Defensive end Devin Taylor said he feels USC’s defense is having a “solid season” so far: “We’re making big plays when we need them.” He added the Gamecocks will certainly be tested trying to stop the high-scoring Georgia offense led by Aaron Murray and running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall: “It’s going to be a challenge for the front seven to keep all three of them contained. They’re going to run more downhill plays at us. We just have to do our job, get off blocks, make tackles and hopefully everything else will play out.”
• Spurrier on the depth at the tight end position: “The tight ends have played pretty well. Justice (Cunningham) and Buster (Anderson) have done most of the playing. In fact, all of the playing. We hope Jerell (Adams) will get in there a little bit more. They’ve played well. They’re just solid blockers in there and good receivers. They always catch one or two.”
• Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said on Tuesday that sophomore Amarlo Herrera will start at Mike linebacker on Saturday. “Amarlo has earned that right due to the way he’s played in the first four games,” Grantham said. “You tell players, ‘If you make plays, we’ll find a way to get you on the field,’ and he’s earned the right to play.” The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Herrera leads the Bulldogs in tackles with 36, two for losses, and has returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown.
• Spurrier said Georgia’s mediocre defensive statistics don’t tell the true tale of its defense: “Their offense scores so much and quickly that their defense has been out there maybe a lot more than other teams. They have been out there the second- or third-most plays. But they have stopped people in the fourth quarter. Reminds me a little bit of Auburn two years ago. Their defense wasn’t ranked very high, either. In the fourth quarter, they stopped people. They won every game, somehow, doing that. Right now, Georgia’s defense is playing very well in the fourth quarter.” Georgia has given up just 37 points in the second half this season. Last week, UGA forced turnovers on Tennessee’s final three possessions to preserve a 51-44 victory.
• Spurrier said big-time games like Saturday’s nationally televised Georgia clash is one reason elite recruits such as Lattimore, Stephon Gilmore, Alshon Jeffery, Jadeveon Clowney and Shaq Roland chose to play for USC: “They look forward to these games. One of the reasons they came here is because they realize South Carolina gets into these types of games. I can play for my home-state university and still experience real big-time college football. This is what we look forward to. The more you win, the bigger they get. So we’re hoping they get bigger.”
• While Georgia has two outstanding true freshmen running backs, Spurrier said USC has a pretty talented one as well: “Freshmen running backs can certainly play and can play well, just like Marcus came in here two years ago. It’s a position where you don’t have to be here for two years and learn the offense and all that kind of stuff. We’ve got a good kid here, Mike Davis, that we think is going to be a great player. Obviously he’s got two guys ahead of him in Marcus and Kenny Miles. But Mike is doing very well.”