It has been a defensive coordinator’s nightmare trying to devise plans to at least hold down the league’s four best passers, but the Gamecocks have done the best job of it.
Going into this weekend, the Gamecocks have by far the best pass efficiency rating among their OVC peers against the group that includes Murray State’s Casey Brockman, Tennessee Tech’s Tre Lamb, UT Martin’s Derek Carr and Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo.
All four are among the national statistical leaders, headlining a conference that leads the nation in scoring and total offense.
JSU has played three of the four so far — it gets Carr Saturday — and held them collectively to an 85.47 efficiency rating. The Gamecocks have allowed less than a 50 percent completion rate to the three they’ve played, who collectively complete passes at a 64 percent clip (73.5 against the rest of the league), and have allowed them only one touchdown while snagging six interceptions.
More importantly, they are 2-1 in those games and came within a whisker of beating all three.
“I’m impressed, but it didn’t come by accident,” JSU head coach Jack Crowe said. “We said two or three years ago we were going to build this thing from the back end to front, and Chris (Boone, JSU’s defensive coordinator) is a part of that.
“It’s just really what we set out to do. It’s not an accident.”
It looked like a train wreck early in the season as the least experienced players on the team’s youngest unit were trying to get comfortable with their responsibilities. The Gamecocks at one time were last in the country in pass efficiency defense, but since their 51-21 loss to Eastern Kentucky they have risen to 53rd in that category and cut their pass defense an average of 50 yards a game.
The Gamecocks have all eight of their interceptions this season in the last four games. Freshman corner Junior Hough has three in the last two games.
You’d get no argument about their improvement from Murray State coach Chris Hatcher. He brought the concept of a prolific passing offense to the league and handed Casey Brockman the reins. Brockman went into last week’s game as the OVC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year and had the numbers to support it.
Brockman still became the OVC’s all-time passing leader in the game, but the Gamecocks held him to 255 yards passing — nearly 150 yards below his season average — without a touchdown pass against a non-BCS opponent for the first time in 20 games and intercepted him three times. Brockman had been intercepted only five times all season and once in the OVC going into the game.
“I knew going into the game, my gut told me it was going to be a lower-scoring game for us,” Hatcher said. “Their corners and safeties match up really good with our outside guys and are able to come up and press and play some man where some other teams haven’t been athletic enough to do that with our guys.
“When you’re able to do that, you get your QB a little bit out of rhythm, and he made some very poor decisions on all three of the interceptions he threw. Their DBs are very talented, they played aggressive, they played with a lot of confidence, especially there in the second half. Once they stopped the run it was a very long half of football for us.”
But the Gamecocks have done that to each of the prime passers they’ve face this year. They held Garopolo to 150 yards below his season average and Lamb to 170 yards below his average against non-BCS competition.
“We’re fortunate enough we’ve got some good players who are putting some things together,” Boone said. “Good secondary play is playing with your eyes and solid fundamentals, and that’s what we work on here every single day.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.