COLUMBIA - South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp laid things out pretty clearly after last season - if the Gamecocks could not get better at running the ball or stopping the run, they would struggle to move forward in the Southeastern Conference.
And as Muschamp predicted, the Gamecocks are struggling.
The Gamecocks (3-2, 1-2 SEC) are 12th in rushing and 10th in stopping the rush, both which cost them victories in their past two league losses. South Carolina lost 23-13 at home to Kentucky and 24-17 last week at Texas A&M.
"Are we where we want to be? No," Muschamp said. "It isn't good enough. It's not productive enough."
South Carolina doesn't get a reprieve this week with gritty Arkansas (2-2, 1-1), sixth in SEC rushing, heading to town.
"It's frustrating sometimes," said linebacker T.J. Brunson, the SEC's second leading tackler. "But we've just got to keep working at it to improve."
Many thought Muschamp and the Gamecocks had overcome their running woes. Rico Dowdle, then a freshman, had three 100-yard games down the stretch last season and South Carolina added power runner and former Crestwood High School standout Ty'Son Williams as a transfer from North Carolina. Speedy A.J. Turner figured to give Muschamp's offense versatility with his knack for running around the edges.
Yet, the Gamecocks remain stuck in neutral. They've managed just 80 yards total their past two SEC games, including just 23 yards on 26 carries a week ago. Muschamp discounts much of that total because of A&M's seven sacks - and 56 lost yards - took a toll on its stats.
Still, as ugly as it looks, Muschamp believes its essential the Gamecocks figure out how to move the ball on the ground if they hope to score points.
"We've got to find some sort of balance in what we do as far as getting to the perimeter more, continuing to have ways to run the football," he said.
Some of the South Carolina's issues are the result of a banged-up offensive line. Tackles Zack Bailey and Malik Young and guard Cory Helms, all starters, have missed games. Muschamp said Bailey is probably the closest of the three to returning to the lineup.
In their places are younger, less experienced players sometimes getting pushed into the backfield by stronger SEC opponents.
The Gamecocks used balance and the arm of quarterback Jake Bentley to take a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter a week ago. But Texas A&M's ground game took hold with Keith Ford rushing for two TDs in the final period. Once the Aggies had the lead, their defensive front came after Bentley hard and sacked him four times down the stretch.
"It can be hard, but we've got to keep fighting," Bentley said. "That's what I tell the guys."
The defense has also been gashed by the run. South Carolina gave up a season-worst 237 yards to Texas A&M. Kentucky put up 184 yards on the ground in its win over the Gamecocks two weeks earlier.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema worries that Bentley's skill and leadership (the quarterback is third in passing yards per game in the SEC) could hurt the Razorbacks.
"He's a coach's son who knows what he's doing," Bielema said.
Muschamp told his players entering the week that there are no do-overs in life, so just work on your game, put aside the late-game failures of the past two SEC games and get better.
"You can't harp on what happened the other night. That was a very disappointing loss. We had a hurt locker room and that was strictly my point with the team yesterday and today," Muschamp said. "'Hey, we'll restart.' Be positive, learn from our mistakes and move forward."
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