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October 1, 2013

Defense: Mountain or mole hill?



Is it a mountain, or is it a mole hill?

In a season where the offense is putting up yards at a school-record pace and running back Mike Davis is the SEC's leading rusher, the concerns people had about the offense - how would splitting carries work, who would replace Ace Sanders - have largely evaporated.

Instead, the defense has been the subject of scrutiny, largely centered on the reality of Jadeveon Clowney's play (12 tackles in four games, and two sacks) versus the expectations he, fans and ESPN fueled every day during an off-season in which The Hit seemed on near-constant replay.

What began with an excusable hot Thursday against North Carolina became a perplexing physical whipping at Georgia by a team that rival Clemson had run roughshod over the week before. Then, after seeming to correct its issues and play like the defense most everyone thought the Gamecocks would field, back-to-back games in which late miscues allow an inferior opponent to rally have again raised questions about oung linebackers getting exposed in pass coverage, inconsistent secondary play, poor tackling, missed assignments and, oh yeah, a bafflingly underwhelming defensive line that can't seem to generate the kind of disruptive pressure it has made its signature for three-plus seasons.

So, is it a mountain, or is it a mole hill?

In different year, with a different schedule and a different offense to lean on, it's a mountain.

This year, with this schedule and this offense, it's a mole hill.

By the time the Clemson game rolls around, many of the mistakes so glaring now - personnel issues, inexperience, communication - will have worked themselves out. There's no reason to believe South Carolina won't be better defensively Nov. 30 than they were Sept. 30. Couple that with it being a home game with mega national interest, and I don't worry that the players in any way will be unfocused or inattentive.

Can an Arkansas or Tennessee - or, shoot, Coastal Carolina, which amassed 652 yards of offense last Saturday at Elon - generate enough heat offensively to challenge an outcome? Probably not, especially with a South Carolina offense that's moving the ball better than at any time in Steve Spurrier's tenure.

If there's a concern on offense, it is that despite the yards, the Gamecocks aren't lighting up the scoreboard. USC is averaging just 30 points a game, goof for ninth in the SEC and No. 68 nationally. The defense, on the other hand, is giving up 25.3 points, 11th in the SEC and No. 64 nationally.

Neither are exceptional numbers, and taken by themselves they tell the story of this season. The Gamecocks have left points on the field this season in droves - 15 at Georgia (UGA's goal-line stand, a missed PAT and Connor Shaw's fumble on a promising drive), probably 14 in Orlando. Until Saturday, the Gamecocks had yet to score more than seven points in a second half.

Part of that is Spurrier. In the previous few years of success the formula has been score enough to win, usually around 28 or 35, and let the defense sit on the opponent. That formula this season is a recipe for danger, which is has found itself in in back-to-back weeks. Until Spurrier can trust his defense, he probably should worry a bit less about suggesting new defenses for Lorenzo Ward and a bit more on making whatever the defense does a moot point by keeping the foot on the gas all game long and not bumbling to scoreless first halves and nearly scoreless second halves that put fans (and, maybe, the defense) to sleep.

At the end of the day, however, we're talking about a No. 13 team with nearly everything still on the table - at least mathematically. So it's important, then, to remember that teams play to get a win and nothing else, and even when it's done in a fashion less impressive than one may like, the job was done, the result achieved, the victory secured.

There's a lot of football to be played between now and the end of November, and I'll wager we'll see a different Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton from here on out, if for no other reason that the level of competition. Can they falter? Sure. Will they? Probably not.

Until they do we're comparing mole hills, and there's no reason - yet - to make them into mountains.

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