The last time the South Carolina football team was on the field inside the Georgia Dome they witnessed Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton being carried across the field on the shoulders of his teammates as the confetti rained down following Auburn's 56-17 win in the SEC Championship game. The Gamecocks returned to the site of that game Tuesday afternoon for the first time in preparations for Friday's Chick-fil-A Bowl against Florida State.
"When I walked in here I didn't really think about the last game," receiver Alshon Jeffery said. "Whether we win or lose I never think about the previous game."
It was definitely a forgetful night for the Gamecock offense. Facing a defense that has been prone to giving up big yardage and a lot of points over the season, Carolina struggled to move the ball against the Tiger defense. They mustered only 17 points on two Stephen Garcia touchdown passes and a Spencer Lanning field goal and only 349 yards of total offense.
Jeffery struggled along with the rest of the offense, catching just four passes for 36 yards and a touchdown. Jeffery's task will not be any easier against the Seminoles as he will likely be matched up with freshman All-American Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes has 55 tackles on the season for the Seminoles, with 12 passes broken up, three interceptions, and two sacks.
"He was a freshman All-American and that's a great accomplishment, but we both have to go out there and play and see what happens," Jeffery said.
Rhodes, who redshirted last season, is one of the biggest defensive backs Jeffery has seen all season. At 6'1, 209 pounds, Rhodes is not afraid to be physical with receivers, which is something Jeffery thrives one. Jeffery uses his 6'4, 233 pound frame well by getting his body between the defender and the ball and using it to shield the defender. It has been a recipe for success for Jeffery, who had 1,387 receiving yards and nine touchdowns this season. Jeffery says it doesn't matter who the defender is, he's just got to do his job well to be successful.
"It doesn't matter how short or how tall he is," Jeffery said. "I've still got to go out there and work hard and do my thing."
Garcia, the man who's job it will be to get the ball to Jeffery, is happy to be playing indoors this bowl season.
"It's a lot nicer than the weather we were in last year for our bowl game," Garcia said. "Hopefully we play a lot better too."
Garcia has struggled in his last two bowl appearances. In his homecoming game at the Outback Bowl two seasons ago, Garcia was just 9-for-18 for 79 yards and three interceptions before being pulled in favor of Chris Smelley in a 31-10 loss to Iowa. In last year's PapaJohn's.com Bowl in Birmingham Garcia was slightly better, but still nowhere near good enough for a Gamecock victory. He was 16-of-38 for 129 yards and an interception in a stunning 20-7 loss to UConn.
"Last year was just a tough way to end the season after we beat Clemson the way we did and we had a lot of hype going," Garcia said. "To come out as flat as we did and play that bad was just tough to accept, but I think this year we have a lot different attitude and play a lot better."
Garcia said the team has been "a lot more focused and a lot more serious" this year.
"We have a chance to do something here that's only been done once before and that's win 10 games and it's a pretty big goal we're looking forward to," Garcia said.
Garcia and the offensive line will be tested early and often by a Florida State defense that leads the country in sacks. What makes that especially impressive is that the Seminoles do not blitz a lot. Of the 46 sacks the Seminoles have this season, 33.5 have come from the defensive line. Brandon Jenkins and Markus White - the starting defensive ends - have accounted for 21 sacks on their own.
"They're an outstanding front four and their two defensive ends are really wide rushers so we just have to make sure the tackles are ready for them and I've got to step up if I need to and get the ball out of my hands as quick as possible," Garcia said.
One thing is for certain; if Garcia has to throw the ball 30+ times, the chances of the Gamecocks winning are slim to none. The Gamecocks must be able to run the ball effectively with Marcus Lattimore. When Lattimore is successful, Carolina is successful. With a defensive line that loves to pin their ears back and get upfield to put pressure on the quarterback, Lattimore's bread and butter - the zone read - along with delayed draws could be very effective plays for the Gamecocks.
"If we follow our assignments and do what we're supposed to do I think we will have a good game running the ball," Lattimore said. "They're a good defense."
When Lattimore gets the ball for the first time Friday he will likely be headed right towards a familiar face. Everett Dawkins - one of FSU's defensive tackles - was Lattimore's high school teammate at Byrnes.
"I remember all those times we went to battle," Lattimore said. "We won two state championships together. He was the man on defense and (was) just killing everybody and now I'm playing against him. It's going to be real fun."
Despite all the gaudy numbers that Lattimore has put up this season, the most surprising statistic is the goose egg beside fumbles. Lattimore has carried the ball 248 times without putting the ball on the ground. After having a propensity of doing that during his high school career, you have to credit running back coach Jay Graham for teaching Lattimore how to hold the ball properly.
"He's just thought about it in practice at all times keeping the ball high and tight finishing runs," Graham said. "A lot of times when you get high you don't finish runs and they can get in there and stand you up and rip the ball out so he's done a great job of doing those things."
Graham has always put an emphasis on holding onto the ball. Only one Gamecock running back has lost a fumble this season.
"That's something we always work on with all the guys and we always talk about it before it happens," Graham said. "That's something I probably say the most during the game is ball security and he understands what that means."
If Jeffery, Garcia and Lattimore all play up to their capabilities, Florida State will have a tough time stopping the Gamecock offense. If Garcia attempts around 20-to-25 passes - many of which will be thrown the direction of Jeffery - and Lattimore has 30-to-35 carries, the Gamecocks will be having a good time bringing in 2011.
Wednesday is another busy day for the Gamecock and Seminole football team. While Florida Sate will be holding their final full practice inside the Georgia Dome from 10:00 A.M. - 12:00 Noon, the Gamecocks will be visiting Egleston Children's Hospital at 10:30 A.M.
Florida State will hold their press conference inside the Georgia Dome following their practice from 12:15 - 12:45 P.M. The Gamecocks will follow from 1:00 - 1:30 P.M. Shawn Elliott, Ellis Johnson, TJ Johnson, and Travian Robertson are the Gamecocks scheduled to speak.
Following the press conference the Gamecocks will hold their practice 1:30 - 3:30 P.M. inside the Georgia Dome while the Seminole team visits Scottish Rite Children's Hospital.
The Seminoles will have their team milkshake part at the Marriott Marquis from 3:30 - 5:30 P.M. and the Gamecocks will have their milkshake party from 4:00 - 6:00 P.M. at the Hilton.
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