Will Muschamp told his team before taking the field in Knoxville against Tennessee that the tougher team is the team that can run the ball most effectively.
In the locker room postgame, Muschamp told his players they were the tougher team.
South Carolina outgained Tennessee on the ground, 194 to 120. South Carolina, despite losing Rico Dowdle early on with a broken fibula, was able to run the ball consistently, notching a new season-high in yardage and averaging 5.4 yards per carry in the second half.
The Gamecocks ended up with 149 rushing yards in the second half, compared to Tennessee’s minus 4. A.J. Turner led the way with 86 yards on 11 carries, highlighted by a 20-yard jet sweep for a touchdown.
In all of this, credit needs to be given to Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper for sticking with the run. South Carolina averaged 3.8 yards on 13 carries in the first half, mostly via the inside zone.
The Gamecocks were 0-5 on third down and 0-1 on fourth down in the first half, scoring just three points along the way. The Gamecocks started to move the ball in the second half after Jake Bentley kept the ball for nine yards after a fake handoff on third and two.
It was the first of several subtle changes in the running game to open up the defense. Turner came in and began to find success running sweeps instead of inside zone handoffs. Ty’Son Williams got in on the action on several one-cut runs that allowed him to get to the second level.
The offensive line began to get some push, but credit the backs for hitting the holes. In the first half, Williams was stuffed on a halfback dive on fourth and one after it looked like he ran into an offensive lineman instead of cutting left into the hole.
“We felt like some of the divide zone stuff really worked well for us, as far as dividing the flow,” Muschamp said. “We cut the ball inside a good bit and we made better cuts at the running back position.”
Muschamp also pointed out that Bentley made some good reads in the run-pass option to open up the interior of the defense.
While the scoreboard only partially reflected the impact of the second half running game, the offensive success really helped Muschamp’s defense.
Tennessee led time of possession in the first half by over six minutes. In the second half, the Gamecocks possessed the ball for just shy of 20 minutes, including 12:22 in the fourth quarter, running 39 plays after halftime. It was all South Carolina’s defense needed.
For the second straight week, five Gamecocks averaged at least four yards per carry. Going forward, South Carolina will have to find a way to replace Dowdle’s production, but heading into the bye week, South Carolina has to feel good about its ability to run the ball.