COLUMBIA - Will Muschamp and his South Carolina football team knew coming into Saturday's matchup with No. 2 Alabama they had to limit big plays from the Crimson Tide.
The Gamecocks didn't succeed in that, but those big plays didn't end up coming …
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The Gamecocks didn't succeed in that, but those big plays didn't end up coming from bombs down the field. Instead, it was short- and medium-length passes in the middle of the field, where Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa let his receivers work in space. Muschamp saw that as being his defense's biggest weakness in the 47-23 loss.
"They're very explosive offensively, you saw their space plays killed us in the game," said the USC head coach. "Going into the game we knew they were going to complete some balls, but (we weren't able) to limit the amount of explosive plays and they're very elusive in space. It wasn't really the vertical balls down the field, but the intermediate and being able to make people miss in space."
Tackling proved to be an issue for USC. The Gamecocks had opportunities to slow down the Tide but missed some crucial tackles that led to scores.
The most glaring example came on the most viral play of the day as Tide running back Najee Harris shrugged off a defender, before leaping over another on the way to the end zone. Linebacker Ernest Jones had a chance to push Harris out of bounds as he neared the end zone, but went to strip the ball, rather than make the tackle. He said he and his teammates have to continue to focus on getting the tackle first and foremost.
"I feel like the big play that Najee had, we were just trying to get the ball out and at the end there me not securing the tackle first," Jones said. "Trying to knock the ball out looks like I pushed him forward to score, which is not the goal of trying to do what I did. We've just gotta do the technique parts first, secure the tackle, then worry about trying to get the ball out."
USC struggled with tackling in the season-opening loss to North Carolina as well.
"We've just got to tackle in practice. We have thud periods in practice where you thud the guy up," said Jones. "If you're a good person at like thudding a person and not bringing them to the ground, when it's time to bring them to the ground, you'll do what you're supposed to do."
Defensive back J.T. Ibe echoed that sentiment.
"I think we played with good effort. We need to improve on our discipline and our focus on technique and alignment, but I think we played with good effort," said the redshirt senior. "I think it all goes back to preparation in practice. We're going to prepare as good as we can, prepare at full speed, take proper angles, track the ball, track their near hip and do what we're coached to do."
Third and fourth downs also burned the USC defense throughout the afternoon. Alabama was 6-for-12 on third-down conversions and 2-for-2 on fourth downs. Harris' highlight touchdown came on fourth down.
"We had some critical third downs in the game. We had third and five and an opportunity to get off the field right there in the second quarter and we don't get off the field there," said Muschamp. "But they've got a good team, and we can't make those mistakes against a really good football team like that."
"It's definitely frustrating. You have to get off the field on third down, especially playing teams like that that their offense is a high-powered offense," said Jones. "Their goal is to score as many points as they can. You have to stop them on third down to give the offense a chance to keep doing what they're doing."
Muschamp saw some positives in the loss though. After struggling against the run against UNC, the Gamecocks held Alabama to just 76 yards on the ground. Muschamp hopes that cleaning up some mistakes in the secondary can put the USC defense trending in the right direction.
"They're really good players and when you play against really good people, things are going to happen," he said. "We played the run extremely well against a team that runs the ball well. We've got to do a better job in the passing game, especially on some of the space plays, on some of the intermediate and underneath throws and making some plays in space in those situations."
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