NOTEBOOK: Arkansas Will Test Secondary

NOTEBOOK: Arkansas Will Test Secondary

Notebook from Coach Steve Spurrier's Tuesday press conference on the secondary issues, the Arkansas game, the SEC East race, and more.

When Bobby Petrino and the Arkansas Razorbacks run into Williams-Brice Stadium, everybody knows what they are going to do; throw the ball and throw it often. The Razorbacks have the best passing attack in the conference, averaging 360 yards a game through the air. They are second behind Auburn in total offense and scoring offense. That's a concern for a Gamecock defense that has been anything but good against the pass this year.

"Arkansas is leading the conference in pass offense," South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday in his weekly press conference. "Not only are they leading it, but they are leading it I think by about 100 yards more a game than the second place team. So they are way ahead in pass offense. Right now we are at the bottom in pass defense"

The Razorbacks feature All-SEC quarterback Ryan Mallett, who many think may be the #1 pick in this year's NFL draft. Mallett ranks near the top of every passing category - he's first in passing yards (2,449), first in passing yards per game (306), third in efficiency (163), and second in total offense (2,411).

"Their quarterback Ryan Mallett might be the first player taken in the draft they say," Spurrier said. "Who knows? But he is a big-time passer."

The best way to stop the Arkansas offense is to get pressure on Mallett. The Gamecocks lead the conference with 30 sacks and the run defense has a conference low of 100 yards per game given up. Spurrier said if he'd have to choose, he'd take this year's defense over last year's defense that was at the top in pass defense and at the bottom of run defense.

"We are No. 1 in run defense so if you had your choice, you would certainly prefer being No. 1 in run defense," Spurrier said.

Still, when you give up 260 yards per game in the air there has to be major cause for concern. With the secondary pretty much intact for the most part from last season, it's puzzling to everyone why there has been so many breakdowns in coverage.

"It's just a guy who is supposed to be in the middle of the field and he runs over yonder somewhere or if a guy is supposed to be here, he ran off and left his area," Spurrier said. "Sometimes when we are playing man to man, we try to stay on his inside or his outside and we get beat the other way or something like that. And then sometimes you just get beat - guy runs a good route - ball's on time. There is nothing you can do about that.

"But it's a team sport," the head coach continued. "Even if you are playing man-to-man, we generally have a helping guy either in the middle of the field or in the corner or at the post. Those players need to be there. We have not done that well all year. We have had some safeties, as you know, run out of the middle of the field or some corners wherever they are supposed to be. We have to quit that. We have to be where we're supposed to be and give our defense a chance to play well."

Defensive Coordinator/defensive back coach Lorenzo Ward has been given a similar title to what Shawn Elliott was given with the run-game coordinator. Spurrier believes Ward's experience will lead the secondary to better days than what it has faced this season.

"Coach Lorenzo Ward, who is sort of our pass defense coordinator now," Spurrier said. "Coach Johnson is the head of everything, but Lorenzo Ward is a guy who has played secondary, a guy who coached it in the NFL and so forth so we are giving him a little bit more importance as far as pass defense."

Many fans wonder if there's any chance of it getting in better this season, and with good reason. The Gamecocks have been dead last in pass defense all season and has showed little signs of improvement. Spurrier believes it can.

"Well, if we can teach our guys to stay in their position on the field and be a ballplayer, it can (get better)," Spurrier said. "If not, then no it won't. If we can smash a receiver or two while he is catching the ball instead of standing around and letting him catch it, it can get better. So we've got to be more aggressive back there and we have to play our assignments and go play because Arkansas obviously is the best passing team in the conference although they lost their best receiver I think, (Greg) Childs. Unfortunately, he got hurt last week, but they've still got plenty of players.

"All of our coaches are spending overtime trying to play some pass defense around here," Spurrier continued. "If we are going to finish strong, we have to get better in that area."

More On Tennessee

For the first time all season, the Gamecocks were ineffective in the red zone for the most part against Tennessee. After being at the top of the SEC practically all season in red zone offense, the Gamecocks' 4-for-7 effort against the Vols dropped them all the way to seventh in the conference at 27-for-33 (82%).

"We also had a lot of mistakes offensively last game," Spurrier said. "We were very fortunate to beat Tennessee because of some mental errors and so forth on our offensive team. It's the first time all year I think that we were on the 2-yard line or 2.5 and failed to score, couldn't even get a field goal. Had a turnover there. We were only 4-of-7 in the red zone. Prior to that, I think we had been leading the conference in red zone scoring. Anyway, we were able to win a game where we didn't play well. We had enough mistakes and so forth to lose the game, but it worked out for us."

In order for the Gamecocks to stay in the game against Arkansas, it will take a much better effort inside the red zone.

Perfection a Goal

One of the goals the team set prior to the season was to have an undefeated record at home. The Gamecocks nearly pulled it off last season, finishing 6-1 with a loss to Florida. The Gamecocks are 5-0 so far this season, including wins over Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.

"One of the goals that our team set was to win all the home games," Spurrier said. "I don't mind telling you that now because we do have a chance. I don't know if we can do it or not but that was a goal. For our guys to beat Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee the same year right here at Williams-Brice is pretty neat and we'll see if we can finish it off, trying to win seven home games here this year. It won't be easy, but if we play well, we will have a chance so we are looking forward to seeing if we can't play a lot better this Saturday night."

Shootout?

One thing is for certain, Arkansas does not mind getting into a shootout - just ask Auburn. The Tigers beat the Razorbacks, but it took a 65-43 victory in which Arkansas played back-up quarterback Tyler Wilson most of the game after Mallett was injured. South Carolina's best option will likely be trying to keep Mallett and the Razorback offense off the field.

"Well, you never know (if it will be a shootout), Spurrier said. "You never know until the game starts. The way our season has been going, what works best for us is to try to run the ball with Marcus and stay on the field and consume some clock. Arkansas doesn't play that way. They will try to score in three plays if they can and tell their defense, go stop them and get us back out there. Hopefully, that is an attitude - well last year we had that attitude because our defense got them off the field quickly last year - but we have just struggled stopping third downs. Sometimes I ask our defensive coaches, ‘Why is that guy out there?' And they say, ‘Well, the other guys are tired.' Well, if we could get them off the field on those third downs, they wouldn't be so tired so we just have to play overall better."

Playing to the Level of the Competition

For years it has always been said that South Carolina always plays to the level of their competition. The Gamecocks get up to play the likes of Florida and Georgia and Tennessee, but then struggle beating the Wofford's and S.C. State's.

After beating Alabama, the Gamecocks have struggled against inferior teams; losing to Kentucky and struggling against Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

"Yeah, I don't like it any more than our Gamecock fans do," Spurrier said. "I wish we could put teams away when we're in position to do that. Seems like we become careless and allow them get right back in the game. Obviously, it cost us one this year when that happened. Could have cost us one Saturday. The fake punt, that's poor coaching on my part. We had no guy covering the end run. I'm over there yelling, 'Watch the fake!' Course, I'm watching that every time they punt from midfield, especially when you have a two-touchdown lead. But we had a return on and that was just bad coaching on my part. Hopefully we'll get that straightened out."

Coach Lawing Getting Some Credit

With a defense that leads the conference in sacks and rushing defense, there has to be great line play. Led by Cliff Matthews, Devin Taylor, Ladi Ajiboye, and Melvin Ingram, the Gamecock defensive line has been nearly unblockable. A lot of the credit goes to defensive line coach Brad Lawing for getting those guys ready every week.

"Coach Lawing, a lot of people finally recognizing that he's one of the best D-line coaches in the country," Spurrier said. "His guys play hard, in good position, they know what to do, and our D-line, I think we're leading the conference in sacks even though we're not very good on passing defense, or haven't been. We're No. 1 in run defense, so those are some pretty good stats for the D-line coach. He needs a raise next year, that's for sure."

Looking Ahead?

Many Gamecock fans are looking ahead to next week's showdown in the Swamp for the SEC East title against Florida. A win or loss against Arkansas means very little, unless the Gamecocks were to win and the Gators lose to Vanderbilt. To the team, however, this game is just as important.

"We just had a talk about it on Monday, and this is Arkansas week and next week, we'll talk about the Florida game," Spurrier said. "We all know what that's about and we'll wait until next week to talk about it. Arkansas is a team that I think in the five years I've been here, we're 2-3 against them. So hopefully we'll even it up. We're going to try to beat Arkansas."

If the team hopes to achieve their goal of finishing undefeated at home, they obviously must beat the Razorbacks. The Gamecocks have not gone 7-0 at home since 1987.

"Like I said, our guys, believe it or not, set a goal of winning all of the home games. We actually thought our team could win all of our home games this year. When the captains said that to me, I said, 'You know we play Alabama here, don't you?' ‘Coach, we think we can beat them.' 'OK, we'll put that goal on our list to try and achieve and we'll see if we can do it.' That would be neat if that were to happen. That's one of our goals. So this week has got tremendous importance. Shoot, even winning eight, nine games in a season is miraculous here, as you guys know. So, we're going to line up and play for it every week."

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