The Gamecocks will enter Saturday's game with an offense that has shown flashes of potential this season but still has plenty of room to improve.
Sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia, the emerging leader of the offense, has come a long way since last season in his understanding and execution of USC‘s offensive system. Although not consistently dynamic, he has made good decisions and managed the game well, while showing flashes of big play ability. USC's starting signal-caller has a respectable 6-2 touchdown to interception ratio and is completing 60% of his passes. Garcia has also shown much improved pocket presence this year, and he has displayed the ability to escape pressure when necessary - which is often needed when working behind USC's work-in-progress offensive line.
The offensive line, which has been a sore spot throughout Steve Spurrier's tenure in Columbia, is playing a slightly more physical, aggressive brand of football this season. However, the talent level on the line is simply not at the level of the top tier SEC teams, and there are still too many missed assignments and penalties from the offensive front. The Gamecocks are allowing 2.4 sacks per game, which ranks 10th in the SEC. Although the line features multiple juniors and seniors in the rotation, the top lineman on the team so far this season has been redshirt freshman right guard T.J. Johnson.
The Gamecocks' running game is noticeably better than last year‘s league worst ground attack, and the offensive coaches are more committed to the run this season, but Carolina has still struggled to find consistent success running the ball against opponents not named Florida Atlantic and SC State. USC features a three-headed running back rotation of redshirt freshman Kenny Miles, heralded true freshman Jarvis Giles, and bruising junior Brian Maddox. While arguably the most talented stable of backs during Spurrier's tenure at Carolina, the lack of running room against the better defenses, especially in red zone situations, has been a concern this season.
USC's wide receiver corps does not feature a dynamic No. 1 target like Sidney Rice or Kenny McKinley of recent years, but the receivers are a deeper and more balanced group overall. Senior speedster Moe Brown and 6-5 redshirt freshman Tori Gurley have emerged as the big play threats for the Gamecock passing attack, while sophomore Jason Barnes, junior Dion LeCorn, and talented true freshman Alshon Jeffery also see significant action on offense. Jeffery, arguably the most naturally gifted receiver on the team, is beginning to see his role increase as the season goes on.
Junior tight end Weslye Saunders has been one of the Gamecocks' top receiving targets this season, but he will miss Saturday's game with a sprained ankle. While true freshman Justice Cunningham will see time as the first team tight end in Saunders' absence, the Gamecocks are expected to utilize more three and four wide receiver sets against the Wildcats to compensate. Versatile fullback/H-back Pat DiMarco, another one of USC's leading pass-catchers, will also help ease the loss of Saunders.
Scheme-wise, the Gamecock offense is still very similar to what Steve Spurrier has run during his first four years at South Carolina. The Gamecocks mix and match a variety of traditional I-formation and spread looks while featuring Spurrier's classic timing based passing offense, but USC has added some zone-read wrinkles to the running game this season. Carolina also has a "Wildcat" formation in the playbook for dynamic true freshman Stephon Gilmore, but they have yet to show it this season since Gilmore is seeing significant action as a starting cornerback on defense.
Spurrier, as always, still dictates play calling based on the flow and success of the game, but overall the South Carolina offense has been fairly balanced in its run-pass ratio. The Achilles' heel for the offense this season has been punching the ball in the end zone during red zone opportunities. The Gamecocks rank 11th in the league in red zone offense, and they've only converted touchdowns on 12-26 opportunities inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Improving in that critical aspect has understandably been a point of emphasis in practice during the first half of this season.
Scouting Report: Gamecock Defense
The defense is once again the backbone of the South Carolina football team, ranking third in the SEC in total defense and having carried the Gamecocks to early season wins over NC State and Ole Miss.
The unquestioned leader of the Gamecock defense is senior All-American linebacker/defensive end Eric Norwood. The dynamic 6-1, 252 pounder is leading the SEC in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (6.5), ranks fifth in the league in interceptions (2), and leads the team with 30 tackles. With a ton of early season exposure, Norwood is considered by many to be the early frontrunner to win the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award this season. Although highly unlikely, he has also become a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Simply put, Norwood is the heart and soul of the Gamecock defense, and opponents must account for him at all times.
Junior defensive end Cliff Matthews anchors a stout defensive front, and he has emerged as a potential All-SEC candidate this season. Matthews ranks second in the SEC in both sacks (4) and tackles for loss (6). Matthews also ranks second in the league in fumbles recovered (2) and third in forced fumbles (2). The tandem of Matthews and Norwood off the edge in third down pass-rushing situations has proven to be a lethal combination for the USC defense. Junior Clifton Geathers and talented redshirt freshman Devin Taylor rotate at the defensive end spot opposite Matthews when Norwood doesn't have his hand down.
The Gamecock defense does have its weak points, though. USC, with injuries at defensive tackle and middle linebacker, has been soft up the middle at times this season, especially when the lack of depth becomes a factor in the second half. No opponent has been able to exploit that consistently this year as the Gamecocks still rank third in the conference in rush defense, but that is a concern going forward.
USC relies primarily on a three man rotation at defensive tackle, with senior Nathan Pepper, junior Ladi Ajiboye, and sophomore Melvin Ingram receiving the majority of the reps.. That trio has been solid on the interior this season, but the loss of junior Travian Robertson to an ACL injury has left little depth behind them.
The Gamecocks are already without starting middle linebacker Rodney Paulk, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL in week one, and they will enter Saturday's game with his replacement sophomore Shaq Wilson not at 100-percent with a sprained neck. Wilson is expected to play, but JUCO transfer Josh Dickerson will start in his place against the Wildcats..
The Gamecocks' pass defense ranks 6th nationally despite relying on a youthful cornerback rotation, which features prized true freshman Stephon Gilmore, sophomore Akeem Auguste, sophomore C.C. Whitlock, and true freshman D.J. Swearinger as the top four corners. Auguste, arguably USC's top corner this season, is suspended for Saturday's game, and he will be replaced by Whitlock in the starting lineup. The Gamecocks will undoubtedly miss Auguste's coverage skills and tackling ability in the open field.
Veteran safeties Chris Culliver and Darian Stewart combine to form one of the top safety tandems in the SEC, and they are a big reason why the Gamecock pass defense is so highly ranked. They are very active in pass coverage, and they rank second and fourth on the team in tackles, respectively. Heralded true freshman DeVonte Holloman backs up Stewart at strong safety, while the Gamecocks are dangerously thin behind Culliver at free safety. Auguste had previously been cross-trained to serve as the backup free safety, so his suspension hurts the depth at that position as well.
The Gamecock defense will clearly not be at full speed in Saturday's game, but they have become accustomed to playing through injuries and adversity so far this season and in recent years. It will be interesting to see how they respond to the challenge of playing a physical and hungry Wildcat offense.
Scheme-wise, the Gamecocks run a base 4-3 on defense, but they mix and match coverages and alignments throughout the game. Defensive coaches Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward bring a variety of blitz looks, and opposing coaches have said that USC's defense is more multiple than any team in the SEC except for Alabama. As a result, the Gamecocks do not often let opponents get into any sort of offensive rhythm, but the complexity of the scheme has led to a few missed assignments at times this season.
Overall, if the Gamecocks can limit an opponent's ground game and force them into obvious passing situations, that allows the defense to unleash Eric Norwood and Cliff Matthews off the edge, which is the clear strength of the defense. The Gamecocks are expected to key in on Kentucky's ground game on Saturday, and their goal will be to force quarterback Mike Hartline to try and beat them through the air.
Scouting Report: Gamecock Special Teams The Gamecocks' special teams have been far from a strength this season, as USC's kickoff coverage ranks 11th in the league and has given up a handful of costly big returns. The biggest issue on kickoff coverage is the lack of a big-legged kicker, as kickoff specialist Adam Yates rarely gets the ball to the end zone. That obviously sets up more big return opportunities.
Spencer Lanning is arguably one of the top punters in the SEC, and the Gamecocks currently rank 4th in the league in net punting. Lanning also handles the field goal duties, and he has proven to be a reliable option inside of 40-yards as he's made his last ten attempts.
Freshman speedster Bryce Sherman has emerged as the Gamecocks' kickoff return specialist, and he has shown flashes of dynamic return ability, but most of his big returns up to this point have been negated by silly penalties. Junior Chris Culliver, who is only 38 yards away from breaking the school record in career kickoff return yards, could also see time as the kickoff return specialist, but the coaches are trying to limit his reps on special teams since he will be relied on so heavily on defense.
Freshman Stephon Gilmore has taken over the punt return duties in Akeem Auguste's absence. In his first returns of the season last week against SC State, Gilmore returned two punts for 42 yards. He is a slippery and deceptively fast player in the open field.