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October 18, 2011
Last season South Carolina led the Southeastern Conference in total sacks with 41, an average of 2.93 per game.
A year later, USC has 15 sacks through seven games, slightly more than two per game (2.14), a drop of almost one sack per game.
But here's the kicker: USC is tied for the SEC lead with Alabama for most sacks by one team this season.
Yes, in case you haven't noticed, the number of sacks throughout the SEC are down this season.
Theoretically, the decrease in sacks shouldn't be happening because even an offensive guru like USC head coach Steve Spurrier admits the defenses in the SEC are ahead of the offenses, a key reason eight teams are yielding fewer than 22 points per game and five are allowing less than 300 total yards per game.
"What happens in the SEC is the defenses are better than the offenses," Spurrier exclaimed Tuesday during his weekly press conference. "These other conferences, they can score a lot of points and make a bunch of yards. But it seems like when these SEC teams go against each other, they don't pile up a bunch of yards and points. That happens all through our conference."
Analysts could offer a variety of explanations for the decline in the number of sacks from last season to this one, but most knowledgeable fans could easily illuminate after carefully watching last Saturday's USC-Mississippi State contest in Starkville - SEC officials are apparently looking the other way when it comes to holding by offensive linemen in 2011.
"Through seven games, (sacks) are probably down from last season," USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing said Tuesday night. "Maybe they're calling holding differently, I don't know. Maybe quarterbacks are doing a better job getting rid of the ball. Apparently, it's going on throughout the entire league. We also played Navy and they didn't throw it. We had one game where there was nothing."
If USC maintains its current pace and again captures the SEC Eastern Division, it would finish with 30 sacks, 11 fewer than last season, in 14 games.
But Lawing hesitates to accept a possible league-wide laissez-faire approach towards holding as a reason for the decline in sacks.
"I always tell them that if you let the guy hold you, it's your fault," Lawing said. "You probably didn't have your body in proper leverage position. You let him hold you. That's how we approach it. You can't let that be an excuse. If it doesn't get called, you still have to get there. It's your job."
Lawing pointed to freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney as an example of what can happen when you occasionally rely on questionable technique.
"I told him he should have more (sacks)," Lawing said. "When he finally learns how to use his left hand in pass rush instead of that shoulder. . .he puts that shoulder in there and everybody holds him. He needs to use his left hand. He should have twice as many sacks as he does, in my opinion, because he has had the opportunities. But because he uses his shoulder he gets held."
Lawing added USC's defensive ends are dealing with more chip-blocking from running backs before they release on a pass route and tight ends are backing up before they head downfield.
"When people do that, they're slowing their passing game down," Lawing said. "They're robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Because SEC coaches are banned from publicly criticizing game officials, few are willing to put their true feelings on the record. Tuesday, Spurrier shrugged off a question relating to the SEC officials possibly tolerating excessive holding by Mississippi State offensive linemen, acknowledging only the Gamecocks sent several plays to the SEC office for review.
Even though sacks might be down, USC is excelling in other areas. The Gamecocks are fourth in the SEC in total defense (277.6 yards per game), fourth in scoring defense (19.1 ppg), sixth in rushing defense (143.9 ypg) and, of course, first in pass defense (133.7 ypg) and turnovers forced (24) and second in interceptions with 14.
"We've got better, more experienced athletes," Lawing said. "Athletes can cause turnovers. We practice the strip drill on pass rush everyday and it's paid off some. And the secondary is doing a heck of a job intercepting the ball in part because we're doing a better job rushing the quarterback too."
Clowney forced his fourth fumble of the season last Saturday in Starkville and is now tied with LSU's Tyrann Mathieu for most in the SEC (0.57 per game). Spur linebacker Antonio Allen is third in the SEC with three fumbles forced.
Clowney and freshman tackle Kelcy Quarles have both exhibited steady progress in their first major college football seasons, Lawing said. But they still have plenty to learn in order to reach their potential.
Clowney has 22 tackles, seven for loss, five sacks (3rd most in SEC) and four quarterback pressures in the first seven games of his college career. Quarles has 13 tackles and four QB pressures.
"Kelcy plays fast and his fundamentals have gotten better since the spring," Lawing said. "Kelcy is going to be a very fine football player as long as he continues to stay humble and he understands he still has a lot of things ahead of him that he has to learn. He has done everything we have asked him to do."
According to the production ratio he uses to judge the performance of his players, Lawing said the four most productive defensive linemen for the Gamecocks after seven games are Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor, Clowney and Quarles.
The latter should see his number of snaps in the game increase, Lawing said, and the Greenwood, S.C., native is making a push to claim one of the two starting jobs at defensive tackle for the Tennessee game in 11 days.
"They're both understanding college football," Lawing said. "They're learning how to practice better. Most kids don't know how to practice (when they get here). You play like you practice. They're learning how to practice faster and better and learn the game. They're playmakers. I put a lot of stock in guys that make plays."
-- Lawing on Byron Jerideau playing a few snaps at defensive tackle along with offensive line in last Saturday's win at Mississippi State: "I just needed someone to plug a little gap," Lawing said. "He played two plays and did a good job right there. I pulled him from there because of Kelcy (Quarles). He can be a two-way guy right now. What I'm going to do with him on defense when he is out there is not ask him to do a whole lot."
-- Safeties coach Jeep Hunter said freshman Brison Williams, who didn't travel to Starkville because of a quadriceps injury, has practiced this week and should be ready to play against Tennessee Oct. 29. Williams is the backup to DeVonte Holloman at strong safety. Jimmy Legree filled in at Mississippi State and almost had an interception.
-- Lawing said he has essentially utilized a three-man rotation at defensive tackle in recent games: Travian Robertson, Aldrick Fordham and Quarles. Thus, the effort to shift Jerideau to the offensive line. "J.T. Surratt is making a lot of improvement," Lawing said. "I would not be adverse to putting him into the ballgame. But when we have tight games, I want my best guys out there. That's human nature. That's the bottom line."
-- Lawing rejects the speculation from the past couple of weeks that Clowney hit the so-called "freshman wall," labeling it as an excuse. "If you love playing football, there is no wall," Lawing said. "You go play hard every day."
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