Mississippi State football heads to Columbia in desperate need of a good performance. What can we expect out of South Carolina’s offense.
Mississippi State football would love to simply erase everything that happened against LSU last week. The Tigers are a very good team, but it was a terrible performance from MSU. They did nothing to make it a competitive game or even show basic competence as a football team.
But they must move past that performance with a crucial game on deck. Before the season, Mississippi State’s trip out to Columbia to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks was circled as the swing game for the season. It’s a road trip against a fairly evenly matched opponent that State really needed to win in order to have the type of season Bulldog fans are expecting.
Now, it’s become viewed as a game the Bulldogs might have to win to just reach bowl-eligibility. I won’t yet go that far, but there’s no denying it as a pivotal matchup. At the very least, Mississippi State has to look better after consecutive subpar outings early in the year. And South Carolina does seem to be a team that could provide them with that opportunity.
Mississippi State vs. South Carolina preview: Understanding South Carolina Gamecocks’ offense
The Gamecocks are off to a 1-2 start to the season.
They opened the year falling 31-17 to North Carolina in Charlotte, a game that was competitive for a half before the Tarheels pulled away. They handled their business against FCS Furman, and last week went on the road to Athens to face the two-time defending champions in Georgia. South Carolina got off to a great start and led 14-3 at the half, but Georgia woke up in the second half, rolling to a 24-14 victory.
The South Carolina offense has been somewhat of a mixed bag to this point in the season. QB Spencer Rattler is building off his stellar play from late in 2022 with a good start to this season. He’s averaging 318 yards per game while completing 71% of his passes. Rattler’s effectiveness as a passer is a must for the Gamecocks, because right now, it’s about all they have going for them offensively.
Carolina has almost no run game to speak of. Adjusting for sacks, they’re averaging just 80 rushing yards per game at 3.3 yards per carry. They got absolutely nothing going on the ground in their two Power 5 games. Now it’s obviously tough to find success running Georgia’s defense, but North Carolina’s allowed about 195 rush yards per game since holding South Carolina to NEGATIVE TWO RUSHING YARDS in Week 1. Sack yardage contributed a good bit to that hilariously low total, but it’s not like South Carolina was running well beyond that.
UNC had seven non-sack tackles for loss against the Gamecocks. South Carolina has allowed 17 non-sack tackles for loss total this season. You notice I keep discounting sacks through this breakdown. It’s not because I’m ignoring them. It’s because South Carolina’s pass protection, or lack thereof, is even more abysmal.
Can Mississippi State football pressure Spencer Rattler?
South Carolina has allowed 13 sacks through three games. Nine of those came in the opener to UNC. NINE. But hey, that’s just four since. Improvement. Let’s play the UNC game again. Would you like to guess how many sacks the Tarheels have since? Probably a huge number, right?
One. They have one sack since sacking South Carolina nine times.
Fair to say North Carolina isn’t exactly dominant up front on defense. And that says a lot about the quality of South Carolina’s offensive line. Now I will be fair that they’ve looked marginally better since their opener, though it’d be hard to be any worse. But this is still an OL that has been mostly horrible at protecting their QB.
They, surprisingly, did an ok job of handling most of UGA’s 4-man rushes. UGA responded by regularly sending five rushers in the second half, which was highly effective. Still, this is a team you can pressure without blitzing. Here UGA goes with a great double stunt that results in two pass rushers running free for Rattler on a 4-man pressure. Rattler manages to get rid of the ball and actually completes it, but he was still greatly disrupted.
Obviously, UGA is significantly more talented in their defensive front than Mississippi State. That’s true every year, but with the way State has struggled to generate pressure this year, it’s especially true. This is a game where the Bulldog DL and LB corps has to shine. If they have to blitz some, so be it. But if they can’t get home in this game, it’s hard to expect them to do it at all this season.
Despite dealing with an immense amount of pressure nearly every time he drops back to pass, Spencer Rattler has done a good job of standing in the pocket and finding open receivers downfield. The Gamecocks try to use the screen game to try and compensate for the lack of running game and slow down pass rushers, but they haven’t had a ton of success with that.
Their offense has been at its best with Rattler as a dropback passer. He’s a decent runner, and can certainly evade defenders for good yardage when plays break down (something you hate to hear if you’re Mississippi State…), but he’s rarely looking to beat teams with his legs. He wants to win with his arm.
Here he does a fantastic job of keeping his eyes downfield and delivering a strike for a first down on 3rd & 9, knowing he’s going to get hit. North Carolina plays Cover 1 Robber. It’s man coverage out of a 2-high safety shell, with one safety playing as the lone deep middle of the field player and the other sinking down as the “robber” underneath.
South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler has been effective
South Carolina goes with the Dagger concept. Dagger is a two-man route combination featuring a vertical seam route from the slot receiver and a deep-in route from the outside receiver. In many cases, there will also be a shallow drag route coming from the weakside. This creates a three-level Hi-Lo on the defense. The primary receiver will be the outside man on the deep-in. Ideally, the seam route will occupy the deep defender while the drag route will occupy the underneath defenders.
That’s exactly what happens here. The single-high safety follows the seam, and the robber safety goes with drag, creating a void between them over the middle. Rattler stands strong in the pocket and hits the deep-in for the conversion.
South Carolina will be without First Team All-SEC WR Juice Wells on Saturday. But Wells hasn’t played much this season as it is, and Rattler has already found a new favorite target. Xavier Legette has been outstanding for the Gamecocks. He’s averaging seven catches and 122 yards per game so far this season. The 6’3, 227 pound senior has been as good as anyone at winning in jump ball opportunities. Rattler will throw it up to him from anywhere on the field and in any situation, and usually, Legette wins.
You can see an example on just the second play of the game against Georgia. Carolina runs a Y-Cross variation that uses a Smash concept to the frontside. The frontside route combination is the X receiver on a shakes route, a corner route that starts with the receiver breaking inside before pushing vertical and then breaking back out, and a flat route from the TE. This is just Smash with the roles reversed. On the backside, it’s typically Y-Cross: crosser from the slot, post-curl from the Z, and the RB on the swing route.
UGA drops eight into coverage here, and is playing man on Legette, who has the shakes route. Legette gets leverage on the corner, but it’s still a very tight window to attempt to throw into. The smarter choice would be to hit the wide-open crosser over the middle. But Rattler trusts Legette, gives him a chance, and Legette makes that decision correct.
Legette isn’t quite the talent of a Malik Nabers, but he’s pretty dang good. And after what Nabers did to Mississippi State last week, the Bulldogs can’t allow another WR to singlehandedly destroy them. South Carolina’s success offensively almost solely comes from Spencer Rattler finding receivers, mostly Legette, downfield.
If you’re State, you have to disrupt him, and you have to find a way to prevent Legette from winning one-on-one. Those are difficult asks considering how State’s defense has played to this point, but if they can do that, they’ll give themselves a chance to win.