COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s final three Bowl Subdivision opponents – Tennessee, Arkansas and Clemson – have three of the best passing offenses in the country. They currently rank Nos. 12, 22 and 10 in passing yards per game and Nos. 15, 21 and 8 in yards per attempt, a measure of just how efficient they are throwing the ball, while making it a large part of their strategies.
Of course, the Gamecocks already defeated Tennessee, 38-35 on Oct. 27, but Volunteers quarterback Tyler Bray lit them up for 368 yards and four touchdowns. Tennessee’s 381 total passing yards were the most, by 48, that USC has allowed this season. The Volunteers’ 8.7 yards per attempt were the second-most USC has given up.
On Saturday, USC faces another skilled, pro-style passer, Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, who has one of the nation’s best receivers, Cobi Hamilton.
USC struggled to get pressure on Bray, and while Arkansas’ offensive line isn’t quite as strong as Tennessee’s, Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward doesn’t want his secondary to depend only on the defensive front to limit Wilson’s effectiveness.
“I think it’s not just pass rush,” he said. “We’ve got to play tighter coverages. We’ve got to do a better job of not showing the quarterback what we’re doing. It’s coaching also. I’m going to take the blame for that (Tennessee) game. I’m very excited that we’re going to have another really good passing team coming in here and see where our growth is from the Tennessee game.”
Ward used the off week to tinker with the back end of his defense. So on Saturday, you could see free safety D.J. Swearinger play cornerback, spur outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman play strong safety (his position the past two seasons) and middle linebacker Damario Jeffery slide over to spur, where he struggled against Arkansas last season while starting for Antonio Allen.
But much of the responsibility for limiting Hamilton will fall on USC’s cornerbacks, including sophomore Victor Hampton, who expects to play physically against Hamilton – an approach that has worked well for Hampton this season.
Ward was USC’s secondary coach last season. While he still helps Brown with that position group, he lets Brown teach his own techniques. Ward had long taught the backpedal technique to his cornerbacks, but Brown favors the catch technique. Hampton said he didn’t play catch technique at all last year, and has done it about 90 percent of the time this season.
The backpedal technique is what it sounds like. The corner backpedals as he covers the receiver. In the catch technique, the corner plays seven to eight yards off the receiver and “you really don’t move until (the receiver is) on you,” Hampton said.
“You kind of have to be very patient and be able to react to whether they’re going to run a deep route or run a short route,” Hampton said. “So it’s kind of harder, because with backpedaling, you have more space. With the catch, you kind of have to get out of your break very quick. In backpedal (technique), you kind of backpedal as soon as they come off the line, so you keep space. But with (catch), you get a chance to put your hands on them a little bit better.”
Hampton said changing techniques this season, his first as a starter, was “a tough adjustment,” but he is “starting to perfect” the catch technique. It requires him to be more physical at times, and he likes that approach against a talented receiver such as Hamilton.
“It’s another good wide receiver coming in here and I’m going to try to do the same thing I did last week – just step in his face, let him know that I’m there and be on all his routes,” Hampton said. “I’ve just got to get my hands on him and slow him down in his routes.”
Tennessee’s top two receivers, Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, had mixed results against USC. Patterson caught three passes for 26 yards, Hunter eight for 90. Neither caught Tennessee’s two biggest plays – touchdowns of 37 and 61 yards.
“We just didn’t play one of our better games,” Brown said. “Regardless of what the defensive line does, when the ball is in the air and it’s a DB and a receiver, we have to be the ones to either catch the ball or make sure that they don’t catch it. We’ll be better at that this weekend. We’ve just got to play better on the deep ball, because they’ll throw it deep.”