Friday, October 26, 2007

South Carolina's ball coach struggling on offense

AP Sports Writer

Steve Spurrier has made a career of shredding the best defensive minds by creating mismatches and schemes where his receivers run free for easy touchdowns.

These days, though, Spurrier's more likely to throw down his notes in disgust than draw up a winning play.

The Gamecocks (6-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) may be ranked 15th and in the thick of the league title chase, but Spurrier's embarrassed by a more telling number - 93rd out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total offense. Their next shot to improve comes Saturday against Tennessee (4-3, 2-2).

For this season at least, South Carolina may have too many problems for even one of the game's offensive masters to fix.

``You can design the plays and if the quarterback doesn't get it off, it doesn't matter'' if a receiver was open or not, Spurrier said.

That's what has happened to the Gamecocks the past two games.

They've been limited to two field goals the past six quarters, and the lowest point may have been last Saturday's 17-6 loss to Vanderbilt, when a season's worth of worries showed up at the same time.

Quarterbacks Chris Smelley and Blake Mitchell combined for three interceptions, the Gamecock offensive line committed five false-start penalties and gave up seven sacks, and South Carolina's young receivers again failed to provide a second option to standout Kenny McKinley.

Spurrier didn't think the pressure of the team's highest ranking in nearly a quarter century - South Carolina stood No. 6 last weekend - had much to with his team's miserable performance.

``I don't ever have any excuses for the way we played,'' he said.

Some might say South Carolina's offense has been a gradual free fall.

The Gamecocks managed on only one touchdown in the season's first signature win, 16-12, at Georgia last month. When South Carolina defeated then-unbeaten Kentucky earlier this month, it took defensive end Eric Norwood to return two fumbles for TDs in the 38-23 victory.

The Gamecocks got off quickly at North Carolina two weeks ago with Smelley's three touchdown passes for a 21-3 lead, but haven't crossed the end zone since.

``After North Carolina, we thought we'd give our offense a chance,'' Spurrier said of opening things up.

Instead, Smelley threw an interception on the Gamecocks' first possession that Vanderbilt turned into a field goal four plays later. Cory Boyd fumbled on the following possession and the Commodores turned the mistake into a touchdown. By the end of the first quarter Vanderbilt led 17-0, more than enough to succeed against South Carolina's stumbling attack.

``What can we say,'' tight end Jared Cook said. ``It is embarrassing. But the only thing we can do now is improve. We've got to get better. We have no choice.''

Spurrier typically has had the answers to such offensive problems. Two years ago, he coaxed a five-game SEC win streak and landmark victories over Tennessee and Florida out of an offense that hovered around the bottom half of the SEC.

This time, Spurrier's tried about every trick he knows.

Shuffling quarterbacks? Done that with Smelley, a redshirt freshman, taking over for Mitchell earlier this year.

Different players? You bet. Six different players have started at the two guard positions this year.

Let young guys play? Been done too. However, only three, Jason Barnes, Mark Barnes (no relation) and Dion Lecorn, have caught passes this season.

If not for South Carolina's defense, it could've been Spurrier's ugliest season. The Gamecocks lead the FBS in pass defense and are second in the SEC with 16.6 points allowed per game.

Spurrier has used three quarterbacks at practice this week, adding sophomore Tommy Beecher to the rotation in preparation for Tennessee.

After practice Thursday, Spurrier said he will likely start Smelley, but said Mitchell and Beecher are ready to play as much as he wants.

``We told Chris, 'Hey, it's your game and if you play pretty well, you can go the distance,''' Spurrier said on his radio show.

Whoever gets the start, it'll come with a game plan Spurrier wishes he didn't have to use.

``I don't know if it takes a new quarterback in there to get them going, or what it's going to take,'' Spurrier said. ``I know we've got to run a lot better, and we've got to give it a chance. And defense has got to continue playing well for us. So, we'll go from there.''