"Turkey Day" Chat with Garnet and Black Attack

We were able to catch up with our buddies over at Garnet and Black Attack and ask them a few questions about this weekend's football game.  Look for our answers over there.  They obviously have a handle on their program and here is the conversation:

 

STS;  Traditionally when you want to beat South Carolina you run the ball between the tackles. Conversely, USC has been really good stopping rush attempts on the edge. This year’s team appears much improved against the inside rush. What has changed at South Carolina to improve in this area and has this "evolution" effected the Cocks ability to stuff running plays on the perimeter?

Garnet and Black Attack:  Well, having a talented, mature interior line that has had good luck with injuries is probably the main explanation. We're still essentially playing some of the same guys in the middle that we've been playing over the past couple of years, but in years past they were young and we've had some problems with injuries. We haven't really been doing much differently in terms of schematic philosophy. Ellis Johnson has aggressively used the run blitz, particularly against mobile QBs and wildcat packages, but he's done that in the past and it's a fairly standard tactic. I'd say the real difference has just been more effective personnel.

Stephen Garcia has had a career that I would describe as "up and down". Are you comfortable with the ball in Garcia’s hands with the game on the line? A lot of Carolina fans were concerned about his ability to protect the ball when he runs. Is this still an issue or has he been more aware when running the ball and either decided to slide or put both hands on the ball?

I'm confident in Garcia's ability to manage a game when the running game and defense are clicking. Garcia has proven that he can play well in that role, when he's not asked to make too many huge plays. But am I confident in his ability to make key plays when the game is on the line, particularly to produce a game-winning touchdown? That I'm not so sure about. Garcia has never led a comeback other than against Kentucky in 2008, and he's more often than not fell flat on his face in that situation. He has had some memorable plays in less pressure-packed late-game situations, getting key clock-draining first downs, for example, but the fact remains that his track record in these situations isn't great. Until that changes, I'm taking an "I'll believe it when I see it" approach.

As far as fumbling goes, there have been times in recent weeks when he's put his shoulder down and not protected the ball well. However, he and the coaching staff made this a priority after the Auburn game, and, overall, he seems to be improving in this regard.

South Carolina, other than the SEC East clinching game at Florida, has struggled on the road the past few seasons. How big of an issue could this be for the Gamecocks and do you have any idea why Carolina has been so polar in terms of wins at home/away?

This is one of the things that worries me the most about this game. The Florida game aside, Carolina seems to be a much worse team on the road than at home. We've done a little better on the road this season, but that's probably largely because of the competition being a good bit worse than last year. I really don't know why we've had so much trouble on the road. Part of the reason seems to be that Garcia wilts a little bit on the road and coughs up the ball more often. Having a better running game has meant that we don't have to rely on Garcia as much this year, and that's led to better road performances, at least when Lattimore hasn't been out with injuries. I'm still a bit concerned about the team's ability to play well on the road, however. A good performance this weekend would go a long way towards assuaging my worries.

South Carolina’s defensive weakness all season has been the secondary, a complete contrast to last season. If memory serves correct, the SC secondary returned the majority of its key players from last season. What happened over the last year? How has Chris Culliver’s injury effected this team?

First of all, Culliver's injury hasn't had much of an effect at all. In fact, we've played slightly better since he went out, although that may be the competition. It may also be because Culliver hasn't played well this year after moving from safety to corner. As far as the more general problems go, it's hard to say. We returned most of our key contributors from last season, and considering that some of those guys were freshmen last year, you would expect improvement rather than regression. Part of the problem has been schematic; earlier in the season, we were running lots of soft zone coverages, and opposing offenses were eating us alive with underneath and short downfield passes. Since then, we've become more aggressive, which I think is generally the right approach considering that we have the athletes to do it. Problems still remain, however, and they seem to mostly have to do with mental errors and poor teamwork. Part of the problem there may be that we don't have a lot of depth and some of the players, particularly DeVonte Holloman, seemed to wear out at the end of the game and be more prone to errors. We've made some personnel changes at the safety positions to keep the players fresher, and that seems to have had a positive effect. The coaches have also worked in practice on having the players learn to communicate with each other more, watch film together, etc., in order to help them improve their communication in pass-off situations and the like. This has also had a positive effect. I'll admit that I'm still slightly worried about this area of our game, though.

South Carolina’s success offensively this season has been a direct result of Freshman Marcus Lattimore. What makes him such a good running back? What does Clemson need to do to shut him down Saturday?

Lattimore's greatest assets are his field vision and strength. You've surely noticed how well he breaks tackles, and he uses both of these skills to do so. He has an uncanny ability to anticipate hits, and when he sees one coming, he plants his legs, takes the hit, keeps his balance, and either keeps going or, at worst, lunges forward for a couple of yards. I'd sum it up by saying he has a very mature running style. He runs nothing like a freshman.

As far as what you have to do to stop him, I'm not sure. Clearly, you have to dominate the line of scrimmage and hit him at the line and pile on. I'd also say individual players would be well advised not to try to strip him and instead go straight for his legs; there were a handful of plays in the Georgia game where the Dawgs were clearly playing for the strip and in the process gave up several extra yards. Obviously, it also helps if Garcia is playing poorly and you can crowd the box. However, the only team that has slowed a healthy Lattimore down this year is Auburn, and (1) Auburn has a very good interior line and (2) I'm not sure we were really committed to moving the ball with Lattimore in that game because Auburn's pass defense is such a weakness. Lattimore is a tough one to slow down. Even when you're doing everything right in run defense, he's capable of getting four yards a pop. That's why he's been such an asset to us; while our line play has improved, it hasn't gotten that much better, but Lattimore is a guy who can make an average line look very good.

There was much talk about Kenny Miles getting more touches going into this season but Brian Maddox has been the guy when Lattimore is not in the game. Why Maddox over Miles and does this have do with "intangibles" and other skills that Maddox may have that Miles lacks to date?

First of all, Maddox came into this season having improved his game. He clearly worked hard over the off-season, has slimmed down a bit, and seems a step faster. He seems to really want to go out on a high note, and he's been effective in the limited touches he's gotten behind Lattimore. Miles, on the other hand, seems to have regressed. The issue is perhaps that he spent some time injured in August camp and may have come into the season without having dusted off the rust. He seems to lack the burst he had last year and seems a little tentative when choosing his holes at the line. We hope he can regain last season's form and contribute next year.

There has been some debate regarding SC’s play calling this season. Spurrier/Mangus have each allegedly both called plays over the course of the season. What differences do these two have in terms of philosophy and who do you prefer as the offensive chief?

This has been an on-and-off-again issue going back to last year, when Spurrier shared play-call duties with his son, whose favorite plays seemed to be first-and-bomb and bubble screens on third-and-long. That was a real problem for last year's team. This season, however, I think the Spurrier-Mangus thing has been more of a media talking point than a legitimate issue on the field, though. We first started hearing about it around the time of the Kentucky game, when Spurrier said that Mangus would get more involved in play-calling but that Spurrier would still have the final say. Considering the strange offensive strategy in the second half of that game (abandoning the run while nursing a sizeable lead against a poor rushing defense), a lot of us were worried at that point that whatever play-calling approach the staff was using was part of the problem. However, since then, despite Spurrier claiming that he's going to stick with involving Mangus, the offensive strategy has been very sensible and I haven't noticed much of a difference between now and earlier in the season, when Spurrier was in charge. We've largely relied on running out of the spread and the I and throw the ball to keep defenses honest. My impression is that there's not much of a difference in terms of offensive philosophy between Spurrier and Mangus, which shouldn't be too surprising considering that Mangus is  Spurrier's former QB and disciple. If I had to say what I'd prefer, I'd say that I'd like to hear that Spurrier is making all the calls. That's what he's for--picking apart defenses during in-game situations. But I really don't think it's a major issue after the way the past couple of weeks have gone down. The only real play-calling worry I really have at this point regards what we'll do if Lattimore gets hurt again, which in hindsight is probably what really caused the problems against Kentucky. But that's not so much a problem with whether Spurrier or Mangus call the plays as with whether Spurrier trusts the running game without Lattimore; he has the final say, after all.

 What is your take on the possibility of this Carolina team looking past Clemson and onto the SECCG next week?

I'm concerned about the possibility. Going into the Arkansas game, Spurrier and the team talked all week about how we weren't looking ahead to Florida, and then we fell flat on our face. Granted, Arkansas is a better football team than Clemson and it would have probably taken a nearly flawless performance for us to have hung with them, but we should have at least been competitive in that game. It's hard to believe that we weren't looking ahead there, and the results prove that even though Carolina is good this year, it can't afford to have an off game and still win. This week, Carolina has an even bigger game to look ahead to, so the worry is there among Carolina fans. The one things that makes me think that this week will be different is what happened last week against Troy. The team had more reason than now to take that game off, but they came out focused and played a very good game. That suggests that they've settled in, are playing confidently, and want to remain at the top of their game. That gives me hope going into Death Valley. Lastly, this is Carolina-Clemson. If our guys can't get up for this, they don't know what football in this state is all about. I'd hope that's enough motivation for them.

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