It would be an understatement to say that this is a very important game for the Gamecocks.
The majority of Gamecock fans polled on the Gamecock Nation message boards believe this is going to be a close, hard-fought contest. A game that may well set the tone for the 2004 University of South Carolina squad - an enigma as a team more so than any other unit since Holtz's arrival.
We do not disagree. However, it is plausible to us that South Carolina could defeat Vandy by two or more touchdowns. At the same time, should The Dores gain early momentum in the form of easy scores and defensive success, it could be a long day, (which would translate into a long season), for the Gamecocks.
The later is a scary thought to many.
With that in mind we offer you this early look, an educated preview if you will, of the individual match-ups that will make a difference in this all important opener for The Cocks. (This is the first in a series.)
First, Vanderbilt returns 23 starters, 10 on offense and 11 on defense along with 2 special teams players. South Carolina on the other hand returns 19 starters, 9 on offense, 6 on defense and 1 special teamer.
We begin by stating the obvious. Vanderbilt will have the home field advantage in this game. According to legend, they typically offer an admirable (pardon the pun) performance to their opponents in openers at home verses SEC teams. For instance in 2003 they somehow managed to open at home - against Ole Miss ... and lost that one 24-21.
Dore fans are understandably enthusiastic about their chances in the 2004 opener.
It Begins And Ends With The Quarterbacks
Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler is a good quarterback. Not great mind you, but very solid. He is capable of putting up big numbers through the air if allowed, and he is a mobile, heady signal caller. This guy is very intelligent and loaded with confidence. Cutler runs his offense like a quarterback should. He is a leader and he likes Field-Generaling his troops in the heat of battle. He reads defenses well and he knows how to play the game.
For the Gamecocks to be successful against Cutler several things are going to have to happen. For starters the highly touted 2004 USC defensive line is going to have to live up to their billing. It is that simple. They must stuff the run of course, but to do so they will first be tasked with shutting down Cutler's passing game by applying ample amounts of pressure to a quarterback that is in no way an easy sack. Cutler is a mobile guy and plenty tough. In 2003 he threw for almost 2,300 yards while notching 18 touchdowns against 11 interceptions going 178-302 ... he basically completed 60 percent of his pass attempts.
Not bad at all.
Cutler will be facing a very young, very inexperienced (although very talented) Gamecock secondary. So it will be up to the South Carolina defensive line to cause Cutler problems. They must force the Vandy signal caller into making mistakes - into forcing the ball into coverage. The Gamecocks must force Cutler to scramble and make plays on the run. It would also be nice to see some tipped balls on the line of scrimmage in this opener.
That is the bottom line. For the Gamecocks to be successful against Cutler the defensive line is going to have to come out with guns blazing. If Vanderbilt gets their passing game going, their running game could become troublesome. More on that later. If this game becomes a scorefest, it will play into a Vandy advantage at home. Home crowds love scorefests.
While all of this is going on Dondrial Pinkins will get his chance.
Pinkins, a fifth year redshirted senior, historically has played his best games on the road. Some claim it is because he is more relaxed on the road away from the home town crowd. With a highly publicized quarterback controversy taking shape, opening on the road may be custom made for Pinkins whose first game output may decide whether or not he starts game two.
DP will be asked to move the ball against an experienced Vandy defense that has always been tough, especially early in their seasons. Vanderbilt's Defensive End Jovan Haye is especially good. He will get after Pinkins and will have to be checked by Dondrial's tackles if Pinkins is going to have time to execute.
Vanderbilt is not small across their defensive line. They have solid experience there and at linebacker. Their secondary is solid, experienced and heady. But even with all of their experience returning, they are still average at best talent. Vanderbilt has a difficult time recruiting the same level of players most other SEC teams will field this season. Another potential negative for Vandy this year is the fact that Skip and Lou have now had two seasons to learn Vandy's most recent defensive system.
Bottom line - as long as Dondrial Pinkins plays error free ball, as long as the Gamecock's offense plays within its early limits and stays with the basics ... and as long as they take advantage of what Vandy gives them - then Pinkins should experience success against the Vandy defense. They are an average defensive team although we do expect them to be slightly above average in this opener. Vanderbilt is not a threatening defensive unit for a powerful, drive-straight-ahead type football team like the one we expect Holtz to field this season.
In the battle between the quarterbacks we expect Jay Cutler to have to win it for the Dores, whereas Pinkins will only be asked not to lose the game.
Understand what we are saying. This opening contest between South Carolina and Vanderbilt is all about South Carolina's defense and their ability to prevent Vandy from scoring with any regularity. Dondrial Pinkins and his offense are going to get their points. Vandy may get theirs too but Rick Minter and his defense will be asked to win this game by controlling Cutler's output in the form of big plays. To do that they are going to have to stymie Vandy's passing game because Cutler and his Dores believe they can throw the ball on SC's young secondary.
It is that simple ... and as stated in the beginning that is where this game will be won or lost.
Other Interesting Match-Ups
South Carolina's running backs verses Vanderbilt's linebackers. The Gamecocks have an advantage here but not as much as you might think. Vandy has always had smart linebackers that make few mistakes. So if the Gamecocks are planning on using their short game in the flats, they are going to have to set it up with an early smash-mouth rushing attack straight up the gut of the Vandy defenders. The only way to do that is to force the Vandy linebackers into hesitating by sending the Tight End and thus dropping the Vandy backers into coverage. That is, of course, provided that the Gamecock wide receivers are doing their jobs and keeping the Dores' secondary busy down field. If the Gamecocks are able to use their running backs as multi-purpose weapons but up the middle and in the flats, then Vanderbilt is going to have a difficult time preventing Pinkins from moving the ball.
Watch what SC does with their backs out of the backfield. If done properly it cannot be defended by Vandy's defensive personnel. Demetris Summers, Daccus Turman and Cory Boyd will be one of the more physical and talented tandems that The Dores will see this season.
Another interesting match-up that we have already touched upon is the Vandy wide receiver corp verses a young and inexperienced Carolina secondary.
Eric Davis and Brandon Smith are both capable pass catchers for Cutler and his Dores, but neither are barn burners. And Vandy lacks serious depth at the position although they do have numbers and experience coming off the bench. That will be their plan of attack.
Expect the Commodores to run wide receivers deep, early and often in an attempt to tire the young Gamecock secondary while testing SC's depth. Key for Carolina will be the center field play of their Free Safeties Jermaine Harris, Ko Simpson and possibly Rodriguez Wilson at times when he is not up in the Apache slot. Wilson especially could be fun to watch as he will be roaming much of the time causing problems for even the alert Cutler in terms of reads. Tremaine Tyler, Ty Erving and even Terrell Davis could play into this match-up in terms of center field depth. Rick Minter, Ron Cooper and David Reeves will ask a lot of first year starters Jonathan Joseph and Fred Bennett in this first game of the season. Vandy will do everything in their power to take advantage of the unknown newbies but they will quickly learn to stay away from Joseph or he will make them pay - and the remainder of the SC secondary is going to need to rise to the occasion. It will be interesting to watch.
Another key match-up will be the Carolina wide receiver corp verses the Vandy secondary. This one is simple. Noah Whiteside, Matthew Thomas and Troy Williamson are three of the more talented wide receiver combos in the conference when they are on their game. Whiteside can be counted on to produce. The jury will remain out on Williamson and Thomas until intermission in Nashville. Not until then will Gamecock fans know what they have this year. It will be all about CATCHING THE FOOTBALL. All three primary Carolina wide receivers are of a higher caliber, talent wise, than anything in the Vandy secondary.
Short and sweet, the Gamecock linebackers should outmatch the Vandy backfield although all three Commodore running backs, Kwane Doster, Matthew Tant and Norval McKenzine are respectable and solid. Not flashy mind you, not overpowering, but solid.
Linebackers Marcus Lawrence, Ricardo Hurley, Lance Laury, Orus Lambert, Curtis Rice, Ryan Brown and sometimes Rodriguez Wilson will be free-floating and playing by instinct all day long. It's the new Minter philosophy and one that should allow this group to cause problems for Vandy's short game.
In conclusion it remains all about the quarterbacks. One will have to play lights out while the other will have to play within himself. This game will be about a young Gamecock secondary verses an experienced group of Commodore wide receivers and a heady QB. The game will hinge upon who makes the fewest mistakes, who gives up the fewest turnovers and who capitalizes when given the opportunity to make big plays. We do not expect the home field advantage to be a major factor in favor of The Dores, in fact, given Pinkins' history, it could play into The Gamecocks' favor. As in all SEC games much will be decided in the trenches and in both cases Carolina appears superior although we do suspect it may take a couple of series for the Cocks' offensive line to get on track and in groove. Finally, this game will come down to the coaching staffs. Neither can afford to come out conservative. If the Gamecocks were to do so it would play into the hands of Vanderbilt. Neither can Bobby Johnson given the fact that he will be facing a far superior team in terms of talent and skill and he knows it - and he is at home. He has nothing to lose by coming out and throwing the kitchen sink at the Birds. If either team gains early momentum and fails to build upon it, it wii prove costly. Look back to last year when Lou Holtz went dry after building an early lead ... it almost cost him at home.
We are calling this one in favor of The Gamecocks. It may not even be close although the odds makers are probably going to line up somewhere in the 2.5 point range in favor of Carolina.
A two touchdown or more win would be more than most USC fans will hope for but it is possible. A one point win would not be a surprise and should it come to that, as long as it is a well played game, Carolina fans will be happy.
A loss is unimaginable.