South Carolina needs some clock-killing drives to keep pace with Georgia

A statistic that weighs heavily on South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and his football team:

The Gamecocks’ first two opponents, Texas A&M and East Carolina, combined to convert 18 of 29 third downs into first downs. That opponent-conversion rate – 62 percent – is by far the worst in the SEC.

That’s not just a random number, it’s trouble entering Saturday’s home game against sixth-ranked Georgia. The Bulldogs dominated Clemson 45-21 in their only game so far, and Georgia might have the country’s best running back, if not best player, in Tarboro’s Todd Gurley.

Gurley set a Georgia record for all-purpose yards in that Clemson game with 293, including a 100-yard kickoff return.

Spurrier knows Gurley is a load and that it might not be realistic for his defense to improve dramatically from its performance in the first two games. So he’s looking for some workarounds and the key term could be “ball control.”

“Obviously we need to stay on the field and not get into a punting game,” Spurrier said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “Most of our good wins we’ve stayed on the field a lot longer than the other team. That’s the best formula for us right now.”

The Gamecocks have a talented tailback in Mike Davis and a relatively experienced offensive line. They demonstrated in the fourth quarter against East Carolina they can play keep-away with the running game.

South Carolina put away the game with an 18-play, 10-1/2-minute drive that left the Pirates down two scores with 90 seconds to play. The only thing South Carolina failed to do on that drive was score a touchdown, but kicker Elliott Fry made his fourth field goal in as many attempts to make the score 33-23.

To some degree this has to be the Gamecocks’ formula, considering their flaws.

“We haven’t been good at all in third-down defense. We’re having some mental errors in our coverages,” Spurrier said. “We are a different defense than we were last year – different players and maybe some of the players who were there last year not playing as well.”

That’s particularly true regarding the pass rush: The Gamecocks have a single sack in the 106 passes attempted by the Aggies and the Pirates. The Gamecocks managed some hurries in the East Carolina game, but they’re stepping up significantly in opponent quality in Georgia.

South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson certainly agrees ball-control is important against the Bulldogs. But the offense has to do more. Specifically, stop settling for field goals in the red zone.

“We’ve just got to do what we do and be efficient with it. We have to get more touchdowns,” said Thompson, who has completed 45 of his 78 passes (57.6 percent). “You can be balanced (between the run and the pass) and that’s how you win.

“You’ve got to be balanced. The line of scrimmage is very important in this game.”

The stakes are big: Lose Saturday and the 24th-ranked Gamecocks start out 0-2 in the SEC with a tiebreaker loss to SEC East rival Georgia.

“Three weeks ago we were advertised as top team in the East. Now they’re advertised as top team in East,” Spurrier said. “(Winning) is pretty much a must for us to have a shot at the division.”

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