USC defense playing with fire in red zone

Opponents having trouble scoring once they cross Gamecocks’ 20

Special to The StateNovember 13, 2012 

  • RED ZONE DEFENSE Red-zone defensive rankings in SEC games:
    TeamScoresPct.TDsFGs
    1. Alabama12-1963.293-6
    2. Texas A&M16-2369.6115-7
    3. Georgia20-2774.1128-11
    4. Missouri24-3275.0231-3
    5. Florida16-2176.297-10
    6. LSU13-1776.5121-2
    7. USC 23-30 76.7 15 8-9
    8. Miss. State20-2483.3137-8
    9. Kentucky26-3086.7215-5
    10. Arkansas20-2387.0164-5
    11. Auburn27-3187.1216-9
    12. Ole Miss17-1894.498-8
    13. Vanderbilt21-2295.5912-12
    14. Tennessee23-23100.0167-7

South Carolina has lived on the edge when it’s come to red-zone defense this season. The Gamecocks rank 21st in the country in red-zone defense efficiency, and while most of the news has been good, nearly everyone sees room for improvement.

Case in point was Saturday when USC allowed Arkansas five trips inside their 20-yard line, but the Razorbacks came away with two touchdowns and two short field goals in the Gamecocks 38-20 victory.

South Carolina has allowed teams to move the ball with success between the 20’s, but they seem to stiffen with their backs to the goal line.

“I’m really proud of the guys’ play when we get in the red zone,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “If I don’t put them in a bad situation by making a bad call, they feel good about just lining up and playing in the red zone. I think that’s been the scenario that’s happened this season, and I’m really proud of the way play when (the offense) get close to our end zone.”

Against the Razorbacks, the only stop came early in the second quarter, when USC had a 7-0 lead. DeVonte Holloman forced a Dennis Johnson fumble at the USC 4-yard line that was recovered by Reginald Bowens, thwarting the Razorbacks’ first scoring opportunity.

Arkansas coach John L. Smith thought it was a crucial play in the outcome of the game.

“We get it down there, and when you are playing a good football team like this, you have to get it in,” Smith said. “That would have made the complexion of the first half totally different.”

Ward has seen the Gamecocks make big plays in big situations.

“We’re blessed to have the young men we’re playing with,” Ward said. “We like to create big plays. I would prefer to not give up yardage, but if we’re going to give up yardage (and) then come up with a big play, then I’m happy with that also.”

The Gamecocks have seen their opponent reach their red zone 34 times in the first 10 games, and they’ve limited the opposition to 25 scores, including 10 field goals. That has helped the Gamecocks in the total defensive rankings. They are 13th nationally, allowing 308.9 yards per game.

While the numbers stack up to being some of the best in the nation, safety D.J. Swearinger believes USC can improve.

“The last couple of weeks, we haven’t been so good so going into next week. We’ll probably be hard on our red zone defense,” the senior said. “We need to do a lot better on that.”

Swearinger was named national defensive player of the week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation, SEC co-defensive player of the week and AgSouth athlete of the week for his play against the Razorbacks — a career-best 13 tackles (10 solo) and a 69-yard interception return for a touchdown. He has been a big contributor to making the big plays this season.

It will be needed over the final two weeks of the regular season when the Gamecocks will face two vastly different offenses.

First up is the option attack of Wofford on Saturday. The Terriers have given USC fits the last two times the schools have met, and Steve Spurrier expects the same this go round. The following week, the Gamecocks travel to Death Valley to meet pass-happy Clemson.

Since limiting Florida to 183 yards, USC has allowed 832 yards to Tennessee and Arkansas. Not the type of performance they were looking to end the season. But as long as the red zone defense continues to deliver, coaches will stay happy.

“Sometimes we think our defense is all-powerful around here, some of the writers think they are, but we are not all-powerful now,” Spurrier said. “We have given up some yards. But we have played real good red zone defense usually.”

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