Only lion tamers and Civil War scholars throw around the term "aggression" more than sports writers and football analysts.
Head football coach Steve Spurrier has often been dubbed a "risk-taker," but he and co-defensive coordinators Jon Hoke and Lorenzo Ward have played very conservatively at times this season.
Aggression wins football games. This past weekend, Jacksonville State and Tennessee each had a chance to put their games away with aggressive play-calling late in the games.
Instead, both teams chose instead to “play it safe” and trust their defenses. Both teams lost.
While admittedly hindsight is 20-20, the Gamecocks could have won Saturday’s game against Kentucky with a few more aggressive play calls on both sides of the ball.
The Gamecock defense played very timidly in the first half of Saturday’s game. Kentucky scored 24 points due in large part the lack of aggression in the second and third levels of the Gamecock defense. By playing on their heels, the Gamecock linebackers and secondary allowed the Wildcat running backs to explode through the point of attack.
Spurrier said that, in the second half, South Carolina’s defense worked harder to disguise its coverages. While the coverage slowed Kentucky’s passing game, it was the aggression of the front seven that slowed the Wildcat running game.
Instead of playing the pass and reacting to the run, the Gamecocks keyed in on the run. In an effort to disguise his coverages, Hoke brought pressure from different angles and slowed the Wildcat running game with a variety of well-timed run blitzes.
Had Hoke decided to make the same type of aggressive play calls in the first half, Kentucky’s offensive tempo would have likely been disrupted. As it stands, the Wildcats notched 307 first-half yards compared to just 92 after the break.
This week, South Carolina will face one of the most unbalanced offenses in the country. The Bulldogs rank 102nd in passing offense and 21st in rushing offense. If the Gamecock defense is to succeed Saturday, they must aggressively play the run and force Georgia quarterback Greyson Lambert to beat them.
On the other side of the ball, an abnormally conservative Steve Spurrier opted for a third-straight red zone field goal rather than try to punch it in for six. Again, one can claim hindsight bias, and scoring from three yards out is a difficult task in the SEC, but with the second half play of the Gamecock defense, even a failure would have pinned the Wildcats deep and put all of the pressure on Towles.
On their next offensive possession, the Gamecocks faced a fourth-and-two situation at the Wildcat 43-yard line. Perry Orth threw a screen pass to redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel. Samuel had dropped the same pass just two plays earlier, but this time, he gained 10 yards. On the next play, a seam route to senior tight end Jerell Adams gave the Gamecocks their first touchdown of the second half.
Those two plays were Spurrier’s gutsiest calls of the year and they put the Gamecocks back in the game. Had Spurrier used that type of reckless abandon throughout the game, South Carolina would be sitting pretty at 2-0.
Historically, Spurrier-coached South Carolina teams play better when they play with more aggression.
In the 2012 Capital One Bowl, South Carolina got the ball with :38 left in the first half and down 13-9. Instead of running the ball and going into the half down four, Spurrier decided to try for six. The Gamecocks scored on a "Hail Mary" and went into the half with a 16-13 lead and all the momentum. They won the game 30-13.
In a 38-35 win over Georgia in 2014, the Gamecocks possessed the ball up three with 1:26 left in regulation. Instead of punting from its own 49-yard line, South Carolina went for the win by running on fourth-and-one. After a successful Dylan Thompson quarterback sneak, the Gamecocks simply had to take two knees to ensure a victory.
Conversely, against Missouri in 2014, the Gamecocks played more conservatively on both sides of the ball once up 20-7 late in the fourth quarter. The Tigers, who had been stagnant on offense all night, rattled off two touchdown drives lasting a combined 3:40 to win the game 21-20.
Announcers across the decades have emphasized that playing not to lose guarantees a loss. Spurrier and the Gamecocks are at their best when they are playing more aggressively. As South Carolina enters a difficult four game stretch, play-calling philosophy can decide the outcome of contests.
South Carolina needs to play to win instead of playing not to lose, plain and simple.