USC recap: Explosive offense makes up for a defensive off-day

 

South Carolina might not be one of the elite teams in the SEC in 2019, but there is one truism about almost all SEC programs: If you want to know exactly where you stand, give an SEC program a week or two to prepare for you.

At the end of the day, the Alabama report shows the following to all future opponents: The defense might not be as good as once thought, but you’d better recruit the Justice League if you want to stop Tua Tagovailoa and this wide receiver corps.

Tagovailoa’s third game was identical to the first two, in that he was able to stay in the backfield and pick which of two or three open options he wanted to throw perfect passes. The initial Heisman Trophy buzz is the same now as it was in the second half of the 2018 season, in which journalists who can’t stand Alabama on a personal level are left over-pumping anyone else that even looks like they might be able to challenge Tagovailoa’s dominance. Aside from Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, there is no other legitimate contender. But you’re going to hear all about four or five other guys out of desperation anyway.

This game turned into Tagovailoa’s magnum opus. Tagovailoa went 28-for-36 (77.8%) for 444 yards, 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. He might have made one bad read, and even that one was debatable.

But he couldn’t do it alone, and that’s where the wide receiver group came in. DeVonta Smith (136) and Henry Ruggs III (122) both went over 100 yards receiving. Jerry Jeudy caught 6 passes for 68 yards and RB Najee Harris 5 for 87 yards in supporting roles. Receivers were running free all day against a South Carolina secondary that didn’t really have any big busts; Alabama receivers simply couldn’t be covered. On one of Smith’s touchdown long touchdown receptions, Alabama actually had a second receiver just as open and a third receiver that probably could have been targeted himself.

Chalk it up to play design, preparation, or just the immense talent Nick Saban has amassed in Tuscaloosa, but the end result is the same: If Tagovailoa stays healthy for the entire season, this offense won’t be stopped. Alabama might yet be outscored, but the offense won’t be stopped. Don’t expect a repeat of the defensive performance Clemson put out there in the championship game at the end of the 2018 season.

But the defense, well, that’s another story.

South Carolina offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon, a long-time Mark Richt disciple at Georgia, did a great job at making Alabama’s defense uncomfortable. He got nine passes into the hands of tight ends in the vicinity of the linebacker coverage area, long a sore spot for Saban’s defenses. If anything, McClendon didn’t run the ball enough, because RB Rico Dowdle seemed to have something Alabama’s defense couldn’t get through. At day’s end, the Gamecocks put up 459 yards, and only several bad moves from Will Muschamp in the special teams game, combined with a couple of rookie mistakes from a rookie quarterback, prevented South Carolina from tightening the score.

South Carolina clearly didn’t have to prepare for Charleston Southern last week. The two weeks the Gamecocks likely spent on Alabama paid dividends. In the end, the talent gap was just too big to overcome. But while Alabama fans are celebrating their offense’s prowess, it might be time to get worried a little about the other side of the ball.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-South Carolina

1. OL had a good day in pass protection, but the running game is missing something. Gone are the days when Alabama gets a first-and-goal inside the 10-yard line and freight-trains the defense back into the end zone. Run blocking has been problematic through the first three games, but got better in this game as the day progressed and Alabama was able to adjust to what South Carolina was doing. What was good all day, though, was the pass protection after the first couple of series. It was certainly aided by Steve Sarkisian’s decision to call faster-developing plays – count the number of five-step drops for Tua waiting on long-developing routes; the number will certainly be less than five – but this was probably the best overall performance of the offensive line yet. Still, there are issues; center Chris Owens did not have a great day, and the offensive line again got little help from the tight end group, and one of Tagovailoa’s sacks was due to RB Najee Harris being slow to pick up a rusher. The Southern Miss game next week will mark the end of Deonte Brown’s suspension, so help may be available the following week. No matter, this was progress.

2. This is what happens when Najee Harris is fully motivated, with his head in the game. He only ran for 36 yards, but he also only received 7 carries. Harris’ contributions in the passing game more than made up for the lack of work between the tackles. Sports highlight shows will have his 42-yard wheel-route TD on repeat all weekend, and rightfully so. If Harris keeps this up – and if Alabama can get him some more help – he’s a freak of an athlete who could easily be the best back in the conference. It’s almost Linnie Patrick all over again.

3. Tackling was an issue, and LB inexperience reared its head big-time. Any tackling (or attempted tackling) that didn’t occur in the DL group was suspect. Basically, anyone standing up at the snap today can be assumed to have had a bad day tackling and you’d probably be correct. The inside linebacker group especially had issues, to the point that Christian Harris was benched for Brandon Ale Kaho in the second half. The aforementioned Bryan McClendon did a fantastic job isolating Alabama’s weakest links and then going right at them. Alabama was at its best when Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings were both playing down in a four-man front, but McClendon began to call direct runs in those situations and let his OL drive Alabama’s OLBs back at the snap. The ILBs and safeties were supposed to be there to clean up the mess but instead found themselves getting caught up in it. Far too many 3-yard runs turned into 6-yard runs. And then there was the issue of too many big pass plays given up across the middle. Where the fix comes, we’re not sure; it’s probably going to simply be a matter of snaps for the linebackers at this point. But the issues in pass defense – pretty much any safety not named Xavier McKinney, who had a fantastic day – are a bit more worrisome.

4. You can’t find worse special teams play than what these two teams gave us today. First, let’s talk about how Will Muschamp may have slit his own throat by poorly-timed decisions, bad no-decisions, and especially horrific decisions that should have been no-decisions because they never should have been made in the first place. The onside kick? Fooled no one. The fake punt? Sniffed out by a backup wide receiver, and he wasn’t alone. The fake field goal? Well, we’ll give you that one, Muschamp, but then your edge blocker couldn’t execute. And none of these were the worst; that distinction goes to not kicking a field goal going into halftime, because the first drive of the second half could have pulled the Gamecocks back within 3 or 4 points, not to mention the letdown that was certainly felt in the locker room knowing your head coach had just frittered away a chance at points. But don’t laugh, Alabama: Missed FG, doinked PAT, and a 13-yard punt. At least Alabama’s kickoff return coverage was so good that South Carolina stopped letting its return men go any further backward than the front edge of the goal line.

5. Let’s talk officiating. South Carolina fans are fuming over several calls – the hold on the fake field goal, a missed hold on one of Alabama’s punt returns, the lack of replay on the TD-or-wasn’t-it right before the first half. But the worst call of the day came at the end when it mattered to no one: Christian Barmore’s ejection for targeting that wasn’t. Forget what was being said on CBS at the time; I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that whatever TV monitors CBS producers provide the analysts must be running in 240p, or may be powered by vacuum tubes with V-shaped rabbit ears to receive the signal. Barmore’s actions met none of the published criteria for targeting, it shouldn’t have been confirmed, and the rules expert droning on for five minutes about how QBs are fragile flowers needs to go clutch his pearls somewhere else. Obviously, this call hurts only Barmore – who, in a completely unrelated observation, needs to get more snaps, because his motor is always on – but there’s a bigger issue here. And that is, what happens when Raekwon Davis gets flagged for something like this in the first half of the SEC Championship Game? Over the offseason, the targeting rules were massaged a bit because officials had begun looking for reasons not to call it rather than legitimate reasons to call it. Barmore’s foul was a farce and the SEC should overturn the suspension without Alabama having to even ask for it. Otherwise, all the talk offseason about making targeting calls less a part of the game was just lip service.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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