Behind Enemy Lines: SOUTH CAROLINA
Behind Enemy Lines
1. South Carolina returned 10 starters on defense coming into the year and have performed well against the pass, yet the Gamecocks have surrendered 192 rushing yards per game. Why has South Carolina performed poorly versus the run?
South Carolina opened the season against Louisiana Lafayette, a team that runs an unconventional zone-read option offense, and because that type of attack is not seen from week to week in the SEC, it caused the Gamecocks a lot of problems. The Rajin' Cajuns were able to rack up 252 yards on the ground in that contest, which clearly hurts Carolina's rushing defense numbers. Part of the problem was that Carolina played a trio of very highly touted true freshmen defensive ends in that game in Cliff Matthews, Travian Robertson and Clifton Geathers, and in their first college action, they got sucked in on fakes and did not play their assignments very well.
As a result, Carolina made some adjustments the following week against Georgia, moving athletic junior Nathan Pepper from defensive tackle to defensive end. That move paid off, as the Gamecocks won the battle in the trenches and held Georgia's talented backfield in check for most of the night on the way to a 16-12 win over the Bulldogs. On the night, the Carolina defense held UGA to 128 yards rushing, and with the exception of one 50-yard outburst by Knowshon Moreno, they limited the Bulldogs to 2.6 yards per carry.
Unfortunately, Pepper suffered a season ending knee injury while returning a pick-six against S.C. State last weekend, so the Gamecocks have moved senior Casper Brinkley back from weakside linebacker to defensive end. Brinkley is no stranger to defensive end, as he played there all of last season, and he was even voted preseason Third Team All-SEC there heading into this fall.
Overall, South Carolina's front seven is much stronger this season than they were a year ago, when they ranked 9th in the SEC in rush defense. The return of veteran defensive tackle Marque Hall from a knee injury last season has solidified the interior of the defensive line, and returning Freshman All-American Eric Norwood has taken his game to another level so far this year. The linebacker corps, led by preseason First Team All-SEC selection Jasper Brinkley, is more experienced and more athletic than last season as well.
2. What will South Carolina have to do to, in your opinion, to register the upset in Tiger Stadium?
This LSU squad is being billed as the best team that South Carolina has faced in the Steve Spurrier era, and it'll be a stiff challenge for the Gamecocks to register the upset this weekend, but Carolina is coming into Baton Rouge a confident group. This is a veteran, talented Gamecock team that has suffered some growing pains the last two years, but has also enjoyed a few landmark victories along the way. The players have the utmost confidence in Spurrier and staff's ability to put them in position to succeed, and they believe if they execute their game plan, they are capable of beating anybody.
As far as what the Gamecocks will have to do to compete with LSU on Saturday, it all starts on the offensive side of the ball. The backfield duo of Cory Boyd and Mike Davis, who have combined for 507 yards and 4 touchdowns so far this season, must be able to generate some productivity on the ground. The running game is the strength of the Gamecock offense at this point, and Carolina likes to set up the pass with the run. Spurrier's offense must be balanced to be effective, and if the running game is stonewalled by LSU's stout front seven, that won't put quarterback Blake Mitchell and the passing game in a position to succeed.
While the running game will be key, the passing game must be able to keep LSU's defense honest. Mitchell must play efficiently and within the system, and if possible, try to stretch the field against the aggressive Tiger defense.
It's imperative that the Carolina offense does not go three-and-out throughout the night, as the defense would eventually wear out if continually hung out to dry. If the defense plays up to their potential and the offense is able to generate some productivity, this could turn into a defensive slugfest. Of course, if the defense could force a few turnovers and/or the Gamecocks could get a big play on special teams to give the offense a short field to work with, that would certainly help their chances as well.
Overall, several things will have to fall into place for the Gamecocks to upset the Tigers this weekend, but that's why they play the game. It should be a very interesting matchup of two talented teams and two outstanding coaching staffs going head to head.
3. It seems strange that in year three at South Carolina that Steve Spurrier hasn't developed a high-flying offense, rather is riding a solid defense to win games. Please offer your opinion.
Steve Spurrier knew when he arrived at South Carolina that it would be a building process to get his offense in place. The Gamecocks have shown flashes of Spurrier's old Fun 'N Gun during his first two years in Columbia, but all of the pieces are not yet in place for his full offense to be unleashed. The Gamecocks appeared close at the end of the 2006 season, when they averaged 36 points per game and nearly 500 yards of total offense in the final four games of the year. However, the early departure of All-SEC wide receiver Sidney Rice to the NFL and the loss of the three interior starters on the offensive line have slowed the offense's progress this year.
While the offense is still a work in progress, the Gamecocks signed what many consider to be the top wide receiver class in the country this past February with highly touted freshmen Jason Barnes, Mark Barnes, Matt Clements Chris Culliver, Joseph Hills and Dion Lecorn. Carolina also has an array of talented, young signal-callers in Chris Smelley, Tommy Beecher and Stephen Garcia that have bright futures ahead of them. When this young talent matures, the Gamecock offense, now called the Cock 'N Fire, could blossom into a typical Spurrier attack. For now, however, Spurrier is utilizing the talent that he has available, which is a strong defense and a bruising ground attack on offense.
4. Can Blake Mitchell get the job done against LSU? Why has he been so inconsistent during his career as a Gamecock and who will Spurrier turn to if Mitchell isn't performing well?
When given time to operate in the pocket, senior quarterback Blake Mitchell can be one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. Now in his third year in Spurrier's system, he is able to read defenses well and throws a very catchable ball. However, if he is pressured and harassed throughout the course of a game, he has a tendency to make mistakes.
South Carolina will likely rely on several three step drops and work out of the shotgun some to put Mitchell in a position to succeed against LSU on Saturday, but the Gamecock offensive line must play their assignments well, as Bo Pelini and the Tigers love to bring pressure. If Mitchell is given time, he's shown in the past that he can lead South Carolina to the "big win," as he holds victories over Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Clemson to his credit as a starter.
If Mitchell should falter, redshirt freshman Chris Smelley would likely replace him. Smelley started the season opener against Louisiana Lafayette with Mitchell suspended, but he has just recently returned to practice after banging up his shoulder in the opener. Sophomore Tommy Beecher is another option, but after he struggled against S.C. State last Saturday, Smelley would be more likely to get the nod this week.
5. What is the general consensus among Gamecock and SEC eastern Division fans about LSU and its chances of making it all the way to the national championship game?
The general consensus among Gamecock fans is that LSU is one of the nation's elite teams this fall, and if they can go through the conference schedule unscathed, they have a good shot at winning another national title for the SEC. Many even believe that LSU was the best team in the conference a year ago, but they didn't capitalize on their opportunities in losses to Florida and Auburn.
I believe Most SEC-East fans have a genuine respect for LSU's program, as the Tigers have recruited well and have established themselves as a perennial contender in the toughest conference in college football.
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