Not so much anymore.
In recent weeks when the Gamecocks have found themselves in the closest of quarters, they’ve been average at best finding the end zone.
The trouble was no more glaring than last week when, at the time they needed it most, usually reliable Calvin Middleton (21 career touchdowns) was stopped short of the goal line on the final play of their 52-48 loss to Eastern Kentucky.
No more than a month and a half ago the Gamecocks were tied for the OVC lead in red zone offense. They are currently fourth in the league in overall red-zone offense (86.7 percent), but eighth in red-zone offense in OVC-only games (82.6 percent).
On the year, they’ve scored on 26 of 30 trips into the red zone with 20 touchdowns. But against league opponents, they are 19 of 23 with 15 touchdowns.
“I think we’re a little undefined in the red zone,” Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe said. “That’s the area maybe we haven’t gotten quite as good as we need to be.”
The red zone, of course, extends from the opponents’ 20 in, but maneuverability gets a whole lot tighter the closer you get to the goal line.
Going back to the fourth quarter of the Austin Peay win, the Gamecocks have had five possessions inside the opponents’ 10 and have come away with points only twice. The 10 plays they’ve run in those situations have netted 15 yards.
Demarcus James lost a questionable fumble after a 3-yard gain from the Austin Peay 4. Jerry Slota caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Coty Blanchard against Tennessee Tech.
Against EKU, Blanchard was intercepted in the end zone from the 9 near the end of the half that Crowe said influenced his red-zone decisions later in the game; the Colonels turned the turnover into a 4-play touchdown drive to take the lead at halftime before JSU came roaring out of the dressing room to score 31 straight points and take what appeared to be an insurmountable lead. Middleton later scored on a 1-yard run before being denied on the final drive.
And then there was that final drive.
Washaun Ealey, who was having a monster game with 200-plus yards rushing, got the ball to the 3 with 17 seconds left, at which time Crowe called time to set the stage for the final plays.
Critics wondered why the Gamecocks didn’t throw a pass on the drive; several yelled their preference above the crowd. They had one called — either throw a touchdown or throw it away — but on the snap after the timeout Blanchard rolled to the left and saw an opening.
He took it, but the Colonels closed off the lane at the 2, then kept the Gamecocks’ quarterback from getting up as the clock wound down.
“The red zone for a quarterback is a defining area because the game gets faster, the spots get tighter and the rhythm changes in a game, and … that’s the reason you find guys are one thing until they get down there,” Crowe said. “Coty’s a little magician in the red zone, but we’re still working through it with him.
“He’s an amazing playmaker, but he will turn into a runner on a pass play in a heartbeat.”
A potential solution is just going to the wishbone down on the goal line, because, Crowe said, Blanchard “can do it better than most,” but the coach also noted they would given up on some quality receivers. The Gamecocks have had success on play-action in the red zone before.
Crowe noted if Blanchard had been a little more patient — and he was getting good protection — the tight end was coming open across the back line. But he quickly added, “I don’t second-guess Coty for one minute.”
Besides, what the Gamecocks were doing to that point produced a 200-yard rusher (Ealey), a 200-yard receiver (Alan Bonner) and a 300-yard passer.
“This is not the same offense he inherited when Marques (Ivory) got hurt (in the opener),” Crowe said. “We have gone to a Coty offense, which is pretty good. I don’t think there’s a more dynamic combination runner-passer anywhere than what we’ve got; I’ve never had one as good. But it’s still in young hands.”
Blanchard finally did get up off the turf and the Gamecocks did get back to the line with four seconds to play.
Blanchard had only one option at that point; he spiked it with two seconds left.
On the final play, Middleton took the ball up the middle only to be stopped short of the goal line. He was a logical choice to get the ball, given his power in the short yardage and his 21 career touchdowns.
“I couldn’t explain the feeling when you didn’t see Calvin in the end zone,” said freshman guard Blake Burke, inserted into the backfield as a beefy blocker on the final play. “At first I was blocking and heard the whistle blow, so I didn’t know what happened. Then I turned around and saw EKU jumping up. It didn’t go like we wanted it to.”
Another red-zone opportunity gone, and with it maybe the Gamecocks’ OVC title and playoff hopes.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.