Finding one to blame among the coaching staff is as futile as trying to pin the blame on one player. It was a collective effort for South Carolina's passing defense to look as bad as it did in the SEC Championship Game.
Auburn's Cameron Newton, keyed by one long pass from the outset, was allowed to get comfortable and do whatever he wanted to do against the Gamecocks in their 56-17 title loss, exposing No. 19 USC (9-4) as a good team that has a lot of growing up to do. The secondary had improved in a three-game winning streak to end November, but severely backtracked in the first game of December.
"Cam's Cam, man," safety Akeem Auguste said in the postgame, still seeming dazed from what had transpired just across the hall on the carpeted floor of the Georgia Dome. "Can't take nothing away from him. I don't know what to say about this one. They handed it to us, really."
Auburn did, and as Saturday sunk into the past and the future -- a Dec. 31 matchup with No. 23 Florida State at the same arena for the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- became reality, USC began to heal. Part of that was not panicking and knee-jerking toward shifting responsibility for the defense's struggles, although with the football office quiet for exam week, who knows what's been put on hold for the time being.
Three coaches -- Shane Beamer (spurs and strong safeties), defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward (cornerbacks and free safeties) and assistant head coach in charge of defense Ellis Johnson -- shared the blame for the meltdown because as coaches, that's what they are required to do. The problem with blaming them is it removes players from the pile, when at least this season, there should be no reason to do so.
The Gamecocks were young in the secondary last year as well, but ranked second in the SEC against the pass. Some of that was because opponents knew USC was susceptible to lacking rushing defense, although the Gamecocks finished fifth in the league in that category.
Yet, the expected growing pains of the secondary were largely not an issue. Stephon Gilmore, DeVonte Holloman, Damario Jeffery and D.J. Swearinger played extensively as freshmen while sophomores C.C. Whitlock, Antonio Allen and Auguste were able to continue learning. The only player the secondary lost from last year was the versatile Darian Stewart, who was a natural for the spur position but mostly played strong safety due to lack of depth.
Coming into this year, great things were expected. It was young, but not as young, and while depth was a concern, the Gamecocks figured they could handle it. It suffered one serious injury -- Chris Culliver was lost for the year at the end of October with a torn pectoral muscle -- but otherwise, remained relatively healthy.
So what happened? Why, with a year under its belt and almost everybody returning from such a strong start, did it regress?
No one seemed to know.
"It's not all about the secondary," Johnson said after the second Auburn loss. "Lot of missed assignments came at other positions. Secondary's made a heck of a lot of plays in the last four or five weeks. We definitely didn't play consistently back there tonight, but I didn't see consistency in one spot on the field."
Much of that is true. As was showcased earlier in the season, when the Gamecocks blitzed and had a man wrapped up, sometimes the defensive backs began to slow on their routes. That was understandable, but when the sack isn't completed, it becomes a problem.
It surely happened on Saturday, when Allen slipped off Newton's waist at least twice and Newton either threw a completion or ran for a first down. Then there were the fakes he had, stepping into the line and back out, which suckered the secondary time and time again.
Once a trend gets set in a season, opponents quickly pick up on it and it continues being a trend. Last year, it was kickoff returns. This year, it was the secondary. A mid-season adjustment to more man-to-man defense yielded better results, but the Gamecocks also faced teams that weren't threats to throw downfield.
When they did play teams who could accurately pass (Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn), the secondary slipped into its familiar scheme. The Gamecocks, after Saturday, checked in at No. 107 in pass defense among the 120 Division I teams in the country. USC simply could not cover its men once they got 25-to-30 yards downfield, and the defenders were getting turned around, playing out of position or out-jumped for complete passes.
About to potentially face another passing quarterback -- FSU's Christian Ponder has thrown for 2,038 yards and 20 touchdowns this year but an elbow injury may keep him out of the game, as it did the ACC Championship Game -- USC has a chance to fix what went wrong against Auburn. One thing that will definitely help is Ponder, and nobody else, is at Newton's level.
But that may not be enough.
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