South Carolina entered the season with a stable of running backs it’d stack up with anyone in the nation.
But through four games, the quartet of Kevin Harris, MarShawn Lloyd, Juju McDowell and ZaQuandre White has been stifled, stalled and controlled as USC watched its 2-0 start dip down to .500 with a 16-10 loss to Kentucky on Saturday.
“The margin of error is very small,” Gamecocks head coach Shane Beamer said Sunday. “It’s a thin line between winning and losing and we obviously have to get better.”
After exploding for 254 yards on the ground against an Eastern Illinois team that hasn’t won more than three games since 2017, South Carolina is averaging just 84.3 rushing yards per game over their last three contests.
Some of that, of course, was to be expected. Georgia entered its Week 3 meeting with South Carolina as the nation’s No. 1 defense. The Bulldogs have also allowed just a single touchdown all season — a 36-yard reception by USC receiver Josh Vann.
Kentucky and East Carolina, though, are not Georgia.
UK allowed 171 yards on the ground to UT-Chattanooga two weeks ago. Missouri also scampered for more than 100 yards against the Kentucky front-seven.
East Carolina has twice been gashed for more than 200 yards by Marshall and Appalachian State. Even FCS foe Charleston Southern — which attempted the same number of attempts (39) against ECU as South Carolina did — mustered 131 yards compared to USC’s 99 yards.
Speaking with reporters on his weekly Sunday teleconference, Beamer pointed to a litany of examples in where the running game went awry Saturday against Kentucky.
He mentioned perimeter blocking and how tight ends and receivers aren’t finishing their blocks. He pointed to the first play of the game where South Carolina missed blocking a front-side linebacker that otherwise might’ve sprung the runner for a long gain. He noted quarterback Luke Doty’s footwork wasn’t quite right at times, which forced the running backs’ paths to veer off course.
Those miscues amounted to a night in which South Carolina finished under 100 yards rushing for the third consecutive week and its lowest output (58 yards) of the season.
“We haven’t done a good job of starting fast on offense in the first half,” Doty said postgame Saturday. “We kind of wait and turn it on in the second half. So that’s going to be a big point of emphasis this next week — just going out there from the start of the game, starting fast, getting the ball down the field, running and executing well and just playing like we know how to play.”
So where does the blame fall?
The offensive line has certainly had its woes, although that’s come more in pass protection than on the ground. South Carolina’s offensive front currently ranks 13th in the SEC in pass blocking per Pro Football Focus, but its run blocking sits seventh in the league.
Harris has spent the bulk of the season’s first month getting healed from an offseason back procedure that sidelined him for the first game. The Gamecocks have tried to get him going over his past three games to the tune of 35 touches — the most of anyone on the team — but he’s only recording 2.63 yards per carry.
White and Lloyd have both seen their touches taper off since Week 1 after recording 12 and 14 rushes, respectively. After running for 133 yards in the opener, White received just five carries at ECU and Georgia and didn’t get a single rush against Kentucky on Saturday.
Lloyd, too, has been used sparsely over the past two weeks — notching just 13 carries in South Carolina’s last three games.
McDowell has been USC’s most complete back since the opener as he sits second on the team with 126 yards on 28 carries. But after breaking out in South Carolina’s win over East Carolina, he didn’t receive a single touch against Georgia the following week.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting our guys in there and letting them get into a rhythm,” offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield said last week. “Because at running you can’t go run four plays and come out. Go again for two plays and come out. We’ve got to get the guy in there that is playing the best and let him go.”
South Carolina’s offense heads into its Week 5 meeting against Troy in need of offensive consistency. Doty’s return helped spark the passing game as he completed 17 of 25 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown. But for USC to find the balance Beamer and Satterfield seek, the running game has to improve.
Another meager day on the ground might not get you beat by Troy. It will almost assuredly stymie South Carolina in crucial games against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Texas A&M over the coming weeks.