South Carolina (2-2, 0-2 SEC) is off to a rough start in Southeastern Conference play — we know that.
Saturday night’s 16-10 loss to Kentucky (4-0, 2-0 SEC) at Williams-Brice Stadium only made the Gamecocks’ issues more obvious.
The Shane Beamer era began with a 2-0 stretch over Eastern Illinois and East Carolina. But the Gamecocks’ first two SEC matchups, on the road at Georgia and at home against Kentucky, resulted in two consecutive losses and raised a number of concerns — primarily on the offense.
While questions still swirl about what South Carolina’s true ceiling and floor could be, the Gamecocks’ performance against the Wildcats did reveal more about some of the obvious trends through the first four weeks of the college football season.
Converting on third and fourth down is a real problem
South Carolina’s offense is a primary area of concern — both statistically and by the eye test.
An unmistakable stat against Kentucky? USC’s issue on third and fourth down.
The Gamecocks converted three of their 12 attempts on third down and went 0-for-3 on fourth down. They didn’t convert any of their four third-and-longs (9 yards or more) and converted only 50% of their third-and-shorts (1-4 yards).
Two of the Gamecocks’ failed attempts on fourth down came amid favorable field position set up by the defense (we’ll touch on this soon). South Carolina’s two fourth-down failures both occurred in Wildcats’ territory and resulted in drives of 15 yards on five plays and 7 yards on four plays.
Beamer was visibly frustrated with the results in his postgame press conference.
“At some point, we’ve got to convert a freaking fourth down or third down and get a freaking first down, help our defense and score touchdowns,” Beamer said.
The offense stalls, struggles to find red zone
Trouble on third and fourth down isn’t the only woe for the South Carolina offense. The Gamecocks rarely find themselves in the red zone and arrived there only once in the entire Kentucky game.
Taking a glance at the drive chart tells all.
USC’s first half: Punt (three-and-out), punt after seven plays, punt (three-and-out), turnover on downs, punt after six plays. It resulted in 80 total yards and four first downs through 30 minutes of competition.
The second half wasn’t much better, though the Gamecocks did come out from the halftime break with some flair as their one red zone trip resulted in their lone touchdown. But a punt, the two consecutive failed fourth-down conversions and a much too-little-too-late field goal were all that followed from the touchdown.
Run game production has steadily declined
Some thought the Gamecocks could have one of the best running back rooms in the country, but the four-man tandem’s production has steadily declined throughout South Carolina’s first four games.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield has been clear that he wants to establish one primary running back from USC’s group of four and identify another tailback to add in the mix. It would appear that Kevin Harris, who started against Kentucky, is the main rusher who receives the most carries. Freshman Juju McDowell saw the second-most touches against the Wildcats.
Regardless of who’s carrying the ball, the Gamecocks’ overall rushing numbers are falling. See: 47 carries for 254 yards against Eastern Illinois, 39 carries for 100 yards against East Carolina, 34 carries for 96 yards against Georgia and 26 carries for 58 yards against Kentucky.
The defense can create turnovers
Safety Jaylan Foster entered Saturday as the SEC leader with three interceptions through three games, and he added another pick to his 2021 resume against Kentucky.
Foster’s interception was just one of three Gamecock turnovers against Kentucky. Two forced fumbles in the second half set up an ailing South Carolina offense with decent field position and a shot to regain momentum against the Wildcats.
But those three turnovers didn’t show any results on the scoreboard. Foster’s interception was good for six plays and 37 yards before the Gamecocks punted it away. And again, those two fumble recoveries resulted in two failed attempts to convert on fourth down.
Punter Kai Kroeger is an asset
It’s a good thing to have a good punter if you’re going to be punting after 50% of your offensive drives, like South Carolina did against Kentucky. The Gamecocks can be grateful for Kai Kroeger in this regard.
Kroeger’s five punts averaged 42.8 yards per punt. His longest sailed 56 yards and set the Wildcats up all the way on their own 3-yard line. Four of his five punts pinned Kentucky back inside the 20-yard line, and two of his punts went for 50 yards or further.