COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina cleared a major offensive hurdle last Saturday.
The Gamecocks scored more than 20 points for the first time in 2016, putting 34 on the scoreboard in their 6-point win over Massachusetts. That number in itself was encouraging, but beneath the success in putting points on the board was another hurdle overcome.
South Carolina converted 50 percent of its third-down attempts against UMass, the first time the Gamecocks reached that number this season. It also was a significant improvement from their season average of 27.1 percent entering the game. Not surprisingly, it led to more success offensively and more sustained drives.
Now, it’s a matter of piecing it all together to consistently put together sustained drives.
“We’ve gotta keep doing what we’re doing,” offensive tackle Mason Zandi said. “We played really well last week on offense. It’s being able to keep doing what we are doing and to keep perfecting our craft on an individual level.
“Coach always talks about you win plays, plays win series and series win games. That’s what we have to focus on is winning downs.”
The Gamecocks opened the season with a moderate level of success on third downs, converting 36.4 percent of their attempts through the first two games. The following weeks were less pretty. USC’s game-by-game percentages steadily dropped from 25 percent against East Carolina before bottoming out at 15.4 percent against Georgia.
Will Muschamp constantly lamented the issues as the Gamecocks dropped to No. 124 in the nation in third-down conversion rate. Prior to the UMass game, Muschamp pointed to the importance of third downs — and generating more first downs — for the Gamecocks to find more offensive success.
“We have to stay on the field on third down,” Muschamp said. “After the Vanderbilt and Mississippi State games, third down has been an issue for our offense. As much as anything, not being able to score points is about not being able to stay on the field. That’s a huge issue.”
South Carolina flipped both scripts against UMass, tying a season-high with 21 first downs in the process. It converted 6 of 12 third downs, but the breakdown of those conversions highlights the importance.
Three conversions were plays resulting in touchdowns, including both of freshman quarterback Jake Bentley’s touchdown passes. Two conversions came on touchdown drives. The sixth was an 11-yard run by Rico Dowdle to seal the game late in the fourth quarter in UMass territory.
Offensive lineman Cory Helms said one of the remedies last Saturday was staying out of third-and-longs. During the four-game stretch following Mississippi State and leading to UMass, USC faced 52 third downs, 40 of which fell into the third-and-long category — third-and-5 or longer. Eighteen of those 40 were third-and-10 or longer.
Those third-and-longs point back to issues on first and second downs, which USC is working to improve, especially in the work-in-progress run game.
“I think for us it’s just not beating ourselves,” tight end Hayden Hurst said. “As soon as we go first down, we get a penalty, it totally kills our drives. As long as we are moving forward and we are sharp and crisp with everything, we are able to sustain drives and get the ball down the field. …
“As long as we can keep it short and keep those third downs short, I think that is what is going to help us out a lot.”
Said Helms: “It boils down to third-down conversions, obviously, because that’s how you keep drives going. But we need to set ourselves up better on third down.”
The splits against UMass still weren’t where USC would like them to be. The Gamecocks faced third-and-long on eight of their 12 third downs. Three were longer than third-and-10, two of which resulted in punts and one a failed fourth-down attempt.
And in contrast to previous weeks, South Carolina made good on some third-and-longs as Bentley’s ability to pass — along with Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel being healthy — led to more downfield movement.
“We all saw it last week what those two bring to the table,” Hurst said. “It helps our offense when we get rolling and we get those two guys in there. We are able to stretch the field with those bigger chunk plays and take those shots.”
It worked against UMass, as the Gamecocks got more explosive plays, more third-down conversions and more points. But increasing consistency and sustaining drives remain a work in progress for the Gamecocks as they host No. 18 Tennessee (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) on Saturday.
“We are going to continue to work on what we do,” Zandi said. “You don’t just midseason, say, ‘Oh, we are not converting on third down as much we would like, scrap the whole playbook.’ You don’t do that. You come into work every day and you get better at what you do every day and you do your job.”