It’s unclear how long it will take before Will Muschamp fully outruns the stigma of his offensive questions.
But South Carolina, both last year and the year before, had been surprisingly pass-heavy considering that reputation. Against FBS opposition, an even 100 teams ran the ball more often than the Gamecocks, only 48.3 percent of the time before accounting for sacks.
“We were more successful throwing the football,” Muschamp said. “We did a much better job protecting the quarterback, going from 41 sacks to 23 sacks. And I think the RPOs have a lot to do with that. They can end up dictating your game.”
That turn toward RPO reliance is important. Those plays allow a team to attack where the defense isn’t, but they also give the defense the ability to decide run or pass to a degree.
What’s more, an RPO offense will often trend toward more passing because defenses are still very much geared toward stopping the run. Last summer Gamecocks linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler all but said he has his front thinking run responsibilities first.
Current Liberty coach Hugh Freeze, a former boss of Gamecocks quarterbacks coach Dan Werner, showed how things can tilt toward the passing game while playing analyst for an early season Florida State-Virginia Tech game. Through the broadcast, Freeze just kept pointing to space on the perimeter, asking why the Seminoles continued to attack loaded boxes (an 85-yard run prevented FSU from averaging 0.4 yards per carry on the day).
A closer look shows while the Gamecocks’ run rate ticked up slightly last season, some of that was situational. In non-passing situations (first downs, second and less than 8, third and less than 5), the Gamecocks ranked 105th in how often they ran the ball, about in line with the season prior.
But USC was 57th nationally in how often it ran in passing situations, a change from 107th the year before. That likely points to simply staying out of passing downs more and more attacking when the defense isn’t packing the box as much.
Quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 3,171 yards last season, part of a total of 3,547, just short of the program record of 3,661 passing yards in 2014.
So despite the reputation for stodgy offense, the Gamecocks have been on the throw-heavy side of things nationally.That offense has been slow (2017) and fast (2018), but at no point has it felt consistent.
Muschamp didn’t say he necessarily wanted more running, but he said he at least wanted the ability to do so. He came out of 2018 pleased with the line’s work, but not happy with his backs’ ability to beat defenders in space or make plays.
So the change might not be running more as much as running more effectively when the need arises.
“We need to be in situations where we can run it and haul it and call it,” Muschamp said, the latter phrase referring to not switching run to pass based on the defense. “And not be in a situation where it’s an RPO. We need to be in a situation where we need to be more successful running the ball. A lot of that goes back to, we’re blocking the box a lot in some really good situations.”