What happened to South Carolina's defense at Auburn?
"We weren't stopping them, so they kept running," defensive end Cliff Matthews said after the game, after looking down at the podium and shaking his head for a few moments. "We just have to turn it up another notch, we've got to practice harder, work on the fundamentals, stay after practice working on extra stuff, whatever it takes to get better."
All of the defensive representatives who spoke after the game seemed to have the same answer. There was no specific scheme that hurt, no one play that broke the back. If there was one factor the Gamecocks could point to and say, "That was it, right there," perhaps it would have been easier.
But there wasn't one. It was a glaring and embarrassing truth -- USC knew what was coming and still couldn't stop it.
"With a guy like (Cameron) Newton, you want a manageable third-and-8, you don't want a third-and-3," Ellis Johnson said. "When you do that with a kid like that that can run the football, that's what it's going to turn into."
Newton took his game to another level against USC, accounting for 334 of the Tigers' 492 total yards. A rushing defense that was first in the SEC, allowing just under 60 yards a game, was ripped for 334, including 176 by Newton.
The performance was so bad that USC plummeted from first to eighth in the SEC's rushing defense statistics. The passing defense actually rose one spot, from last to 11th, but the total defense dropped one spot, from 10th to 11th.
Johnson said it was more the execution, not the plan, and anyone who saw Newton take off and began counting missed tackles can confirm that. But there were also glaring weaknesses in the secondary, which gave up far too much cushion on receivers that they knew were not going to run downfield.
The middle of the field has been a danger zone all season, but USC would counter in the red zone. That disappeared as the relentless Newton kept driving Auburn downfield.
"They spread us out more than they'd been spreading people out and started running the football on the edge, put it on the board, chalked it up and that's about the end of it," Johnson said. "We ran about the same things at the beginning of the game we did later in the game, only when the score got to a point where it was a ball-control aspect of it, we started loading the box a little bit."
The game also began to turn in the third quarter, when Auburn erased USC's lead with an 80-yard drive. The defense was pushed back time after time by Newton and Michael Dyer, but help was on the way.
As soon as the Tigers went ahead 21-20, Stephen Garcia dropped back from his own 25-yard-line, rolled left and saw what he wanted to see -- Alshon Jeffery streaking uncovered through the middle of the field. Garcia hurled a missile, the speedy sophomore caught it and began churning to Auburn's 6-yard-line.
Two plays later, Garcia found Tori Gurley with a bullet in the numbers and Gurley fell into the end zone for a 27-21 lead. Challenge answered.
Except the defense, which had just been shoved around with no resistance, had scarce time to catch its breath and realize the situation. Boom, boom, boom -- Newton led the team downfield again, overcoming a fumble and potential touchdown return that Antonio Allen lost, and although the Tigers did not score on the possession, it was a prelude to the four-turnover fourth quarter.
The yardage and points elevated and USC couldn't answer. Jeffery comes down with that last touchdown from Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks force overtime with a two-point conversion, perhaps the defense finds itself and USC walks out of Auburn with a win. The defense still would have had a lousy night, but it would have been a case of working on it over the bye week and realizing it didn't hurt the record.
"We just have to execute it a little bit, like the simple stuff," linebacker Shaq Wilson said. "We just have to stay with our keys and make plays in big-time situations. We just have to tackle well and stay in our positions."
Strangely, it seems that the next opponent -- No. 1 Alabama -- might be a relief after Auburn. The Crimson Tide have two of the best running backs in the country in Trent Richardson and defending Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, but at least when those two guys get the ball, defenses know who has it and what direction the ball will probably be going. There are none of the fakes and misdirection that Auburn uses.
Not that that's comforting at this point, but there's time to work on it.
"What we're concerned about is how poorly we played," Johnson said. "We didn't play well assignment-wise, kids not executing what we worked on. We seemed to be confused by a couple of formations. We didn't really tackle well. I thought we got blocked, I thought we never got off blocks, I'm not sure we fit very well at linebacker and we didn't get a lot of run support in the secondary."