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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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The BattalionMay 4, 2024

Defense slowing down South Carolina

Defensive+lineman+Tyree+Johnson+sacking+Zeb+Noland+to+bring+about+4th+down+for+the+Gamecocks.
Photo by Photo by Robert O’Brien

Defensive lineman Tyree Johnson sacking Zeb Noland to bring about 4th down for the Gamecocks.

In many ways, Texas A&M football has found itself reflective of South Carolina’s season. Both SEC teams seemed to fall short of high expectations halfway through their season. Both teams have offenses trying to find their identities and defenses leading the charge.

The Gamecocks’ offense brought in a strong transfer portal class expecting to change the program going forward, while A&M’s defense has followed up on its successes of the past despite losing talent to the draft and gaining a new defensive coordinator in DJ Durkin. For either team to win on Saturday, Oct. 22, these sides of the ball will need to be focal points in Week 8 of the college football season.

The poster child of South Carolina’s offseason was redshirt junior quarterback Spencer Rattler. Rattler began his career at Oklahoma where, as a redshirt freshman in 2020, he became one of college football’s premier young talents. However, a rough 2021 season saw him fall out of favor and, eventually, replaced by then-freshman quarterback Caleb Williams, now at USC.

“​​Watching Spencer [Rattler], I feel like he’s a quarterback that trusts his arm and sometimes trusts his arm too much,” junior safety Antonio Johnson said.

However, Rattler still displays the talent that led him to be a pre-season Heisman contender for the past two seasons. Rattler has shown variance in his level of play, but when he hits the high end of that variance, South Carolina’s team is tough to stop. Rattler’s upside was apparent in the second half of the Gamecocks’ Week 6 upset over Kentucky.

“​​I told him that Oklahoma played Texas today, [Oct. 8, and] it was in that game one year ago that he lost his starting job,” South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said. “One year later, he leads us to this.”

With a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 5 to 8, Rattler has a quarterback rating of just 43.2, 100th best in the Football Bowl Subdivision, according to ESPN. The middling performance of Rattler hasn’t been because of a lack of talent, though, as the Gamecocks have plenty of great pass catchers.

“I knew as the season went on, he and our offense and the passing game would get better with the familiarity and whatnot,” Beamer said. “I think they continue to get more and more confident with each other.”

Junior receiver Antwane “Juice” Wells, a transfer from James Madison, has been the leader of the offense with 375 yards in the air. Senior receiver Jalen Brooks has also cleared the 300-yard mark in the air, and the tight end duo of junior Jaheim Bell and senior Austin Stogner have combined for 231 yards.

The Aggies have been strong against the passing game so far this season, though, and could  stifle the struggling Gamecocks offense. Sophomore defensive backs Jardin Gilbert and Tyreek Chappell have emerged as consistent contributors out wide while junior Jaylon Jones has taken charge since his return from injury.

At 175.5 yards per game, the Aggies have the 14th-best passing defense in the country and the second best in the SEC behind only Georgia. A solid outing against a top-ranked Alabama team before A&M’s bye week gave the Crimson Tide its second scare of the season. The defense has been the strongest aspect of A&M’s team this season.

“We got pressure,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “They did a really nice job. They’re physical and moving the line of scrimmage … They’re getting better and better each week.”

However, the weakness has been A&M’s rushing defense, which has faced continuous attacks by teams over the course of the season. While Johnson and senior linebacker Chris Russell Jr. have racked up tackles all year, 48 and 41, respectively, this is an indication of the problem, not the solution.

The Aggies have allowed 286 yards, 144 yards, 244 yards, 175 yards and 181 yards on the ground in weeks 6 through 2, respectively. Allowing an average of 189.5 yards on the ground, the Aggies allow more rushing yards than receiving yards per game.

The Gamecocks have the personnel to exploit this weakness, such as redshirt sophomore running back MarShawn Lloyd. Two seasons removed from an ACL tear, Lloyd is averaging 119.7 yards on 7.5 yards per attempt over the team’s last three games. Lloyd only has two rushing touchdowns on the year, but the Gamecocks have 17, compared to their seven passing touchdowns.

For South Carolina, though, the question is not whether they are capable of running effectively. The Gamecocks have been arguably more efficient on the ground than in the air. The difficulty is whether or not the team can commit to a ground attack. Beamer has been committed to a balanced offense, running 185 passing plays to 204 rushing plays. The game plan that South Carolina chooses to execute could be the difference in the game.

“We know we’re going against some good [running backs],” Johnson said. “It’s a big emphasis on the defense right now to stop the run.”

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