Gamecocks Look For Improvement On The Ground

South Carolina brings in a team full of question marks as they take on Auburn Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.

Auburn, Ala.-–The return of Steve Spurrier to Jordan-Hare Stadium is one that many Auburn fans have looked forward to since he was named South Carolina's coach late last year.

One of only five major college coaches in history and only the second SEC coach to reach 100 wins in a decade when he went 102-22-1 during the 1990s at Florida, Spurrier is back in the league after a short stint with the Washington Redskins.

He brings a team into Saturday night's ESPN2 contest that is struggling to find a more physical identity on both sides of the ball, something that Spurrier has always been known for despite his penchant for throwing the ball. Last in the league in rushing and next to last in rushing defense, the Gamecocks will try to change their fortunes in the SEC against Auburn.

So far this season USC is 2-0 against non-conference opponents Central Florida and Troy, but losses to Georgia and Alabama have Spurrier on the verge of the first three-game losing streak in SEC play in his career.

Offensively, the Gamecocks have a ton of question marks entering Saturday's contest with quarterback play right at the top of the list. LaGrange, Ga., native Blake Mitchell (6-3, 194, So.) has been the starter for South Carolina this season and has played well, completing 65 percent of his passes for 916 yards and seven touchdowns with just three interceptions. The problem for Spurrier is that Mitchell suffered a sprained ankle in the win against Troy last week and his status is listed as doubtful for Saturday night's contest. That is a big blow for an offense that counts on the passing game to get the job done.

Coming into week five, the Gamecocks average 254 yards through the air, but without Mitchell they'll likely have to change the way they do things.

That means backup Antonio Heffner will get the call. A redshirt freshman, the 6-1, 187 Heffner is more of a running quarterback who hasn't had as much success throwing the football since he's been at South Carolina. This season he has thrown just 10 passes, completing seven of them for 103 yards and one touchdown. Much of his damage has been done on the ground where he has rushed for 58 yards on 16 carries and another touchdown. His rushing yardage is good enough for second on the team, which isn't good news for the Gamecocks.

They come into the game with the league's worst rushing attack and one of the poorest in the nation. Averaging just 65.5 yards per game at 2.4 per carry with only three touchdowns, the Gamecocks bring up the rear in the SEC and are 113th in the country out of 117 teams running the football. South Carolina struggles so much running the ball that if the Gamecocks were considered an individual they would rank 10th in the SEC in rushing, eight yards behind Kenny Irons per game despite almost 70 more carries this season.

The leading rusher for South Carolina is true freshman tailback Mike Davis (5-9, 209). In four games he has rushed for 143 yards and one touchdown on 42 carries. In fact nobody else besides Heffner has rushed for more than 50 yards this season total. That includes big Daccus Turman (5-11, 229, Sr.), who has 10 carries for 47 yards this season and one touchdown. While he's listed as a fullback, he could be the player who gets extra touches this week with Mitchell ailing and South Carolina needing to find a way to control the ball.

One place the Gamecocks have playmakers is at wide receiver where Syvelle Newton (6-0, 214, Jr.) and Sidney Rice (6-4, 191, Rfr.) give Spurrier a chance down the field. This season Newton leads the team in catches with 16 while Rice has caught 15 for 235 yards and three touchdowns. The two have combined for five touchdowns on the year, almost half of South Carolina's total. At tight end the duo of Carson Askins (6-2, 229, Jr.) and Robert Pavlovic (6-5, 244, So.) are more of an extra blocker with just four combined catches this season.

Up front the Gamecocks return a veteran offensive line that should have been the strength of the team in 2005, but that hasn't been the case. Bookend senior tackles Jabari Levey (6-6, 316) and Na'Shan Goddard (6-5, 304) are the best that South Carolina has to offer with banged-up guard Freddy Saint-Preaux (6-5, 314, Sr.) also able to move defenders off the ball. In the middle center Chris White (6-3, 310, Jr.) handles things while smallish guard William Brown (6-4, 270, So.) rounds out the starting five that has allowed 13 sacks in four games this season.

Defensively, the strength of the Gamecocks is against the pass as they are tied for the league lead in sacks with 13, but will be facing an Auburn offense that has given up just four sacks this season. Leading the charge is big tackle Stanley Doughty (6-1, 328, So.). A load to handle, he has seven tackles this season, but four have been for losses. He also has a pair of sacks.

Rounding out the starting four up front are nose tackle Chris Tucker (6-1, 288, Sr.) and defensive ends Charles Silas (6-5, 258, Sr.) and Jordin Lindsey (6-3, 231, So.). A Mobile native, Lindsey and Silas both got their first career starts last weekend against Troy.

At linebacker the Gamecocks are very experienced with Lance Laury the leader of the group. A 6-2, 235 senior, Laury has started 21 games in his South Carolina career and enters Saturday's game with 18 tackles, including four for a loss. Leading the Gamecocks in tackles is Mike West. A 6-0, 211 junior, the outside linebacker has 30 stops on the year. That is one head of athletic Ricardo Hurley (6-1, 242, Sr.) in the middle.

In the secondary Ko Simpson is one of the best players the Tigers will see this season on the defensive side of the ball. A 6-1, 201-pounder, Simpson was the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2004 when he intercepted six passes. He was a preseason All-american by several publications. Other starters in the secondary are cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (5-11, 187, Jr.) and Fred Bennett (6-1, 194, Jr.) along with free safety Chris Hampton (5-11, 186, So.). The Gamecocks are allowing just 155 yards per game through the air, but opponents have rushed the ball almost twice as many times as thrown it this season.

On special teams the Gamecocks are solid with senior Josh Brown handling both duties for the team. This season he's averaging 39.3 yards per punt and has put four of his 18 kicks inside the 20-yard line. On field goals he's a perfect 3-3 and has made 12 of his last 13 attempts dating back to last season. Kenny McKinley (6-0, 174, Fr.) and Carlos Thomas (5-11, 175, Fr.) handle the kick return duties with McKinley averaging 5.6 yards on punts and Thomas 28.6 on kickoffs. A rarity, long snapper Ike Crofoot, brother of Auburn's Chas Crofoot, is also the holder for field goals and extra-points in addition to snapping for punts.

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