South Carolina has a very good defense--arguably the best we've seen this season. Here we'll give you an overview of who they are, what they do, and what Clemson has to do to keep their offensive juggernaut rolling.
The South Carolina defense has a new coordinator this season but still rely on the same core philosophies and strategies as previous seasons. Ellis Johnson left Columbia to become the head man at southern Miss and his secondary coach, Whammy Ward, was promoted. Ward continues to use the 4-2-5 as his base defense. We did a piece on the 4-2-5 a couple years back and, again, we'll encourage you to study that article for a lot of the basic concepts behind the Johnson/Ward 4-2-5 attack.
Whammy publically proclaimed that he would be more aggressive than his predecessor calling the defensive shots. I will say that both he and his predecessor adjusted their schemes based upon the players they had in their system, as any good coach would do. A good example of this was Johnson's use of Eric Norwood several years ago. Norwood was a machine, disrupting opponent passing attacks with Norwood's athletic talents. I expected to see more blitzing this year following Ward's proclamation of aggressiveness but given Scar's talent up front, he hasn't needed excessive and exotic blitz packages. Instead, he has used different line packages along with his base personnel as we'll discuss later.
The most obvious shift is in their pass coverage strategies. Carolina is playing a lot more man based schemes than in years past which trickles down to a more simplified defense. We saw some issues in Ellis Johnson's last 2-3 season as the Gamecock shifted to more zone coverages. The result was mental breakdowns that resulted in big gains for the opponent. M2M is about as simple as it gets. Opposition long strikes are most often simply the WR outplaying the defender. There is some communication on switches and such, but largely reliant on skill vs. skill.
The use of more M2M also simplifies the role of the Spur linebacker. Remember that the Spur is a hybrid linebacker/safety who must make a read at the snap of the ball to position himself to defend the run or pass. This is discussed more thoroughly in the link provided earlier. A proper read gets either makes him the third linebacker on a rushing play or another defensive back when the offense passes. More M2M lessens the decision making here and almost makes his base read simply formation based.
As previously stated, I initially expected more "stuff" out of the Gamecocks' blitz package but have been surprised at the relative lack of linebacker/corner pressure they've come with overall. Their decision to play more conservatively at the backer position is largely a function of the team's strength-the defensive line. Devin Taylor, Jerideau, Kelcy Quarles, and J. D. Clowney are one heck of a starting unit and perfectly capable of flat out getting after an offensive line. These guys are good at both stopping the run and getting pressure on the opposing quarterback. They are also good at anticipating snap counts. The Clemson signal caller will obviously need to make cadence adjustments to keep them from jumping the snap.
When Scar has forced the opponent into an obvious passing scenario, they will go to quicker defensive personnel for pass rush reasons. Scar has substituted a linebacker for a tackle (leaving three down linemen) or shown a creative defensive line look coined by Brad Lawing (SC defensive line coach) as the "Rabbit Package." What this does is removes the tackles (Quarles and Jerideau) from the game and replaces them with two other ends (Sutton and Fordham) to increase the overall speed along the offensive line. Something else of interest is Carolina's placement of Clowney along the defensive line. To avoid getting the automatic doubleteam/chip/allowing offenses to scheme for him at the end position they have moved him inside for a handful of plays. This alignment with an inside blitz could easily cause issues for any offensive line.
The starters at linebacker include Shaq Wilson and Reggie Bowens. Both are seniors (as is most of the Carolina linebacker two deep) and both are very capable players, especially when you put them behind a defensive line as good as Carolina's. DeVonte Holloman, also a senior, takes the field as the hybrid Spur linebacker. In tight formations they will slide him up to the LOS just outside of the TE. This effectively creates a five man front-squeeze outside the TE and moves the strongside defensive end either head up or inside the TE. In two back sets, WILL and SPUR will mirror the back positioning. If the backs line up inside the tackles, both those guys will be over or inside the DEs. A back outside the tackle will slide (likely) SPUR outside as well to mirror this back. As you would expect, these three each rank in the top four on this defense in total tackles in '12.
Their secondary has been praised and does benefit from a good front seven (and particularly good front four). The big name there is D.J. Swearinger. He is a tough player, seemingly has his nose in a lot of plays (second on the team in tackles), and has been a big play guy for the Gamecocks this season. Though he is listed as the FS starter and has seen most of his snaps there this season, Swearinger is very capable of playing the corner position and did so for the Arkansas game earlier this year. Auguste and Hampton have looked very mediocre this season, though I believe Auguste was bitten by the injury bug earlier this year. As you could probably tell, I am not overly impressed with this South Carolina secondary, especially when you consider how they fared against the only wide receiver corps comparable to Clemson-Tennessee.
Make no bones about it, this is the best defense Clemson has faced since Florida State and arguably the best front four we've seen all season (again, FSU fans would argue that point). The key for the Clemson offense is up front. If we can get some semblance of a running game going and can keep Tajh off his ass, this offense should roll. The entire SC defensive line is very quick and powerful. If you want proof of these guys running over and around a decent offensive line, rewatch the Georgia game.
We'll be watching Dalton Freeman and the middle of the offensive line specifically. He's talked a big game all season and we have not been overly impressed-particularly with the lack of push in the middle of the line. He and the rest of the line will have their hands full all night long. Carolina shows both even and odd fronts and certainly they will find a way to cover the center with a DT on normal downs and a guy like Clowney when they go to their Rabbit package. We have gotten piss poor push A-gap to A-gap all year so I am not holding my breath that a miracle will happen between the center and guards before Saturday night. The thing we absolutely have to do is chip the ends on every single play. If we don't give our tackles some help out there via TE or back chip they will get eaten alive. I am not confident we can run to the corners with the speed Scar has at end either.
The key to success in the running game is running right at the end. They are too quick to try and get outside. I am not sure that you want to run as much outside zone as I fear we wouldn't get the backside downblock quick enough because both their tackles are quick enough to shoot that gap (again, their tackles shot gaps well against a formidable Georgia rushing attack). I should point out that we were successful with OZ plays against FSU early--so hopefully I'll be eating those words. Inside techniques that hit the B-gap or go right over the tackle's ass would be where I begin. I'd also like to see more lead/iso and power plays to at least assure you can kick out the end or whoever is in the gap. LSU did this well earlier against the Gamecocks, though LSU does this well against everybody they play.
Other alternatives here include zone read, inverted veer, and option plays. Here is the article STS wrote a complete article about conflicting the end if you want more ideas on slowing that guy down. If the backside end is getting upfield too quickly, we ran an inside counter play (typical of the Wing-T in that it involved a lot of motion and multiple handoffs) earlier this year that was slicker than owl shit and one I'd like to see more often. We'll almost assuredly run a couple screen plays for various reasons as well.
The Chad knows what he is doing doesn't need too much advice from me. We do get a little testy when it appears as though he runs or passes just to create some sense of balance but the man's offensive numbers speak for themselves. The Chad will almost certainly test this defense vertically. Look for Sammy, Nuk, and Bryant to see a couple bombs down the field to try and take advantage of a questionable secondary. We'll also see the same plays we have seen all season featuring the quick short/medium range quick hitters. One thing Tajh cannot do is lock in on his primary too early. Their corners are good enough to jump a stop or slant in this instance. The overall key, again, is giving Tajh Boyd enough time to throw and Tajh being mobile enough to escape pressure when it comes. Tajh's mobility has mitigated some flaws we've seen up front and I'll assume this will be the case Saturday. We obviously believe that if we can get Ellington going as, at a minimum, a rushing threat and can provide some time for Boyd to throw, the Tigers will get theirs on the offensive side of the football.