Will Muschamp has a very simple explanation for why Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster are suddenly running the ball well, giving South Carolina a potent rushing attack.
“Ass on bench is the best motivator we have got,” he said.
“Guys, they all want to play and they all want to be out there and they all want to start and they all want to be on the field. There is no question that competition is a great motivator for us. I think that position, we have done a nice job there as far as the competition is concerned.”
South Carolina dominated Kentucky with its run game Sept. 28, rushing for 247 yards in the 24-7 win. Dowdle and Feaster both topped 100 yards rushing and combined for three touchdowns, while Mon Denson added 41 yards off the bench. It marked the first time since 2001 that South Carolina had two running backs rush for more than 100 yards in an SEC game.
After gaining just 16 yards on the ground in a 34-14 loss at Missouri, Muschamp was encouraged by his team’s ability to run the ball against Kentucky. The Gamecocks rolled up a school-record 493 yards rushing against Charleston Southern and then gained 135 yards against No. 2 Alabama before struggling in a strange road game against Missouri.
“You go to Missouri and you don’t run the ball very well, they did a nice job with some things and we weren’t as effective as we needed to be, and then we rushed the ball well against Kentucky, so it brings you some more confidence,” he said. “We have just been inconsistent.”
Muschamp said he wants to continue to run the ball and create a balanced offensive attack where the run game takes pressure off freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski and opens up the passing game.
“It’s really important to have balance offensively because when you get too one-dimensional in our league against the schedule that we have, it’s going to be very difficult to move the football if you are just running the ball all the time or throwing it all the time,” he said. “To be able to create balance is something we want to be able to do.”
The offense will face its biggest challenge Saturday at Georgia. The No. 3 Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 in the SEC) have allowed just 68.8 rushing yards per game and just 277 yards of total offense.
“Going on the road, especially in this sort of game, you need to be able to have some balance in the run game,” Muschamp said.
South Carolina has had particular success with what it calls its pin-and-pull play in which the guards pull out into open space and take on linebackers and defensive backs to create running room in the open field. Dowdle scored on a 30-yard run against Kentucky when right guard Jovaughn Gwyn pulled out and made a key block in the open field.
Muschamp believes he has a stronger and more athletic offensive line this year with veterans Sadarius Hutcherson at left tackle and Donell Stanley at center. Sophomore Jordan Rhodes and Gwyn, a redshirt freshman, are at guard while freshman Jaylen Nichols is currently filling in for injured Dylan Wonnum at right tackle.
“You have to have guys who are athletic pullers and can block guys in space,” he said. “You have to be athletic to do that, and I think we have recruited well up front. Our guys are more athletic and they are able to anchor and make contact in space on people, and that’s been something that has been productive for us.”
Dowdle and Feaster have also done their part by breaking tackles in the open field. Dowdle leads the team with 370 yards rushing and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Feaster has 290 yards and is averaging 5.8 yards. Both have long runs of 35 yards and Feaster scored against Kentucky on a physical, tackle-breaking run in the fourth quarter.
“You have to have talented runners because you are not going to be able to put a hat on a hat on everybody in the run game. Guys have to be able to run through contact and make guys miss,” Muschamp said.
Dowdle, who has battled injuries throughout his career, says the arrival of Feaster, a transfer from Clemson, has pushed him to stay healthy and step up his game. Feaster, meanwhile, says Dowdle has motivated him as well.
“He motivates me and pushes me and I push him, and I think it’s working out pretty good,” Dowdle said. “… I think we have a chance to be a really good backfield. We’re just getting better each day and working off each other so there is no drop-off when either one of us is in the game.”
“I think we play off each other a lot,” Feaster said. “Everybody wants to start and everybody wants to be the guy, but if we keep pushing each other we can push each other beyond the limitations we think we have.”