on November 1, 2008 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Vols-Gamecocks: Match of struggling offenses

COLUMBIA — Struggling offenses and no running game. This sure doesn’t look like the latest matchup between national championship coaches Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer.

Yet, when South Carolina and Tennessee (3-5, 1-4 SEC) hit the field at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night, Spurrier’s Gamecocks and Fulmer’s Vols enter with the bottom two rushing attacks in the Southeastern Conference. Throw in some inconsistent quarterback play, along with a dash of offensive line confusion, and it’s easy to see why both offenses rank in the SEC’s lower half.

“Certainly, this isn’t how I drew it up,” Vols first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said.

Spurrier and Fulmer hope something clicks — and soon.

The Gamecocks (5-3, 2-3) have again given the offense to quarterback Stephen Garcia. The freshman played strongly off the bench to rally South Carolina to victory at Kentucky three weeks ago and earned his first career start the following game against LSU. However, the Tigers’ speedy defense pressured Garcia throughout, sacking him six times, in a 24-17 win.

Spurrier harped on Garcia the past two weeks — South Carolina was off last Saturday — for playing like he was in high school and trying to rush for yardage when a play broke down.

“He’s going to break that habit,” Spurrier says. “You just can’t take off running. Every now and then it’s fine when you have an opening. But when there’s no openings there you just can’t start running around. You’ve got to throw it away or find somebody.”

Garcia hasn’t gotten much help. South Carolina’s runners average 100 yards a game, 12th in the 12-team SEC. It’s offensive line leads the conference in sacks allowed, meaning Garcia has precious little time to wait for Spurrier’s timing routes to unfold.

Tennessee knows how the Gamecocks feel.

The Vols’ offense figured to ride the strong rushing pedigrees of Arian Foster and Montrario Hardesty back to the top of the SEC Eastern Division. But Foster’s gained just 402 yards and doesn’t rank among the conference’s top 10 in yards per game. Foster has yet to rush for a TD after getting 12 in 2007, the most for a Tennessee runner in 12 years.

Hardesty has about half of Foster’s production, although he’s got five rushing scores.

Tennessee is also using a first-year quarterback in Nick Stephens, who has started the past four games after taking over from Jonathan Crompton.

Stephens, a redshirt sophomore, had thrown for four touchdowns and no interceptions the past month. However, the Vols fell to No. 8 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama during that stretch.

“Nick’s playing like a first-year quarterback,” Clawson says.

There are times, the coordinator continued, Stephens is on target, poised and efficient. Other times? Well, Clawson hopes the Vols can muddle through until things sharpen up.

“You just hope you’re good enough and make enough plays around it that you can survive it, and we haven’t done that,” Clawson said.

Who knows who’ll be around when things improve. Fulmer is under continuing pressure as Tennessee tries to avoid its second losing year the past four seasons.

Receiver Josh Briscoe says the team needs a win to lift everyone, not just the coaching staff. “We’re one family,” he said. “One person is down, we’re all down.”

As bad as things have gone offensively, the teams are among the SEC’s top defenses.

South Carolina led the nation a few weeks back and still sits atop the SEC. Tennessee is fourth in the SEC and 14th nationally.

The Vols are led by safety Eric Berry, tied for second nationally with five interceptions.

Gamecocks defensive lineman Nathan Pepper says he won’t let his teammates come into this one thinking Tennessee will continue to struggle offensively.

“The things that I do is try to make the guys know that these teams are just like us,” Pepper said. “If you feel we’re a dangerous team, I’m definitely sure they feel they’re a dangerous team. They just haven’t got all the wins they’ve wanted.

“We have to stay focused and play these teams like they are undefeated because they could potentially be undefeated at this time,” Pepper said.

Probably not with offenses like this.