COLUMBIA — If No. 21 South Carolina can’t run, it will have trouble winning – something Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier understands all too well.
The 10th-year coach turned around a program that had just one 10-win season before he arrived with a clock-controlling run game and a defense salty enough to keep opponents in check.
But that formula didn’t work last week as the Gamecocks were held to 67 yards on the ground by Texas A&M. Forced into a shootout, South Carolina’s offense fell far short in a 52-28 embarrassment at home where they hadn’t lost in nearly three years.
Spurrier is looking to get the ground game cranked up when the Gamecocks (0-1) face East Carolina (1-0) on Saturday night.
Since arriving in Columbia before the 2005 season, the once pass-happy Spurrier has embraced the run as his team’s primary weapon. He’s relied on 1,000-yard rushers Marcus Lattimore and Mike Davis to wear down opponents and versatile Connor Shaw – the quarterback was South Carolina’s second-leading rusher the past three 11-2 seasons – to use his legs to pick up critical yards.
The Gamecocks were sixth in SEC rushing last year, ahead of such Tailback U. schools like Tennessee and Georgia.
Shaw’s replacement this season, Dylan Thompson, though is more the drop back passer who Spurrier groomed during his “Fun-n-Gun” time at Florida.
“Right now, we’re not maybe a quarterback run team as much as before so we need to block. We need to get some holes in there and the backs need to run well,” Spurrier said.
Spurrier drove that message home at practice. He sped up drills and had his starting offensive line go against the first-team defensive linemen to work on blocking, a technique he doesn’t generally use once games start to keep players healthy for the season.
“We’re going to practice the heck out of it and see if we can get better,” the coach said.
There will also be some new faces on the offensive line for week two. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott says Will Sport will take over for right guard Cody Waldrop while Alan Knott was getting a strong look at center in place of Clayton Stadnik.
“We’ve put a little more emphasis on” the run game, Elliott said. “We’ve got some backs that want to run it. We’ve got some linemen who want to block for it. We’ll see how it pans out.”
This past Sunday, Spurrier classified Davis – his 1,183 yards rushing in 2013 was South Carolina’s fourth best single-season mark ever – as “sort of doubtful” with bruised ribs he hurt against Texas A&M.
Spurrier was more positive about Davis’ status as the week continued and said he’s close to full speed for the Pirates. If Davis is limited or held out, (the Gamecocks have SEC East rival Georgia coming to town Sept. 13) South Carolina will rely on Brandon Wilds, Shon Carson and David Williams to carry the load.
“I know coach (Spurrier) has a stable of running backs just like we do,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “About Mike playing or not playing, I’ll leave that up to their medical people.”
East Carolina held FCS opponent North Carolina Central to 70 yards rushing in a 52-7 win last week.
Wilds has experience stepping in for starters and excelling. He got the call as a freshman in 2011 when Lattimore was lost for the year after a mid-season knee injury, finishing with three 100-yard rushing games down the stretch.
“Hopefully, we will run the ball a little bit more,” said Wilds, who led South Carolina with 45 yards on nine carries last week. “The offensive line loves to run the ball, so just as a team, we just go out there and run the ball a little bit more.”
Spurrier also promised that Williams, a 6-foot-1, 214-pound freshman who turned down Auburn, Miami and Ohio State among others for the Gamecocks, has earned a chance to carry the ball this week.
“We need to run the ball, stay on the field ourselves, things of that nature,” Spurrier said. “Didn’t happen at all the other night.”