It was nearly one year ago when the South Carolina Gamecocks traveled to the Plains of Auburn with hopes of competing with one of the SEC's premiere football teams, but instead, they were served an embarrassing reminder of just how far they had to go at that point. The Tigers trounced the Gamecocks 48-7 and dominated every phase of the game, but according to Coach Steve Spurrier, that game served as a turning point for the Gamecocks in the 2005 season. "That game sort of may have helped us to tell you the truth. The teams I have coached in the past, sometimes when you get clobbered, you regroup and turn it around," said Spurrier. South Carolina went on to win their next five SEC games, including monumental victories over Tennessee and Florida on their way to a 7-5 finish.
Now, four games into the 2006 season, the Gamecocks are preparing to play host to the #2 Auburn Tigers on Thursday night, and once again they are searching for a spark to gain momentum while heading into the heart of the SEC schedule. However, this time around, they are hoping to do without the drubbing at the hands of the Tigers. Coach Spurrier appeared optimistic about his team's chances to compete with Auburn during his Monday press conference, as he said, "We are looking forward to the game here on Thursday night… We gotta believe we have a chance. We gotta believe if the ball bounces our way here and there that we can hang on the field with these guys. We will be ready to play and see what happens."
The Gamecocks will face a stiff challenge against the Tigers, however. Auburn currently ranks second in the conference in scoring defense, as they are only allowing a mere 6 points per game, but their offense, which is averaging nearly 30 points per contest, is also one of the elite units in the SEC. Coach Spurrier noted the Tigers similarities to Georgia, who shut out the Gamecocks 18-0 earlier this month, and praised them for their quality of play in recent years. "I see Auburn as a very similar athletic team (to Georgia) that plays extremely hard and hustles. They play fast; they make very few mistakes in their assignments. That's why they were conference champions two years ago and 7-1 last year, and easily could have been considered the best team."
Coach Spurrier knows that the Gamecock offense, which is clearly still a work in progress, will have their hands full against the aggressive Tiger defense this Thursday. "They play a very aggressive style, I'm sure they will mix it up against us. It seems like almost everyone we play has a little bit different of a plan when they play us, so we will expect a little bit of everything. This year they have been a very aggressive bump and run team that is not going to concede anything to you. If you get open, you have to earn your way to get open against these guys." Spurrier then stated that a major key to the game will be the Gamecocks ability to pass protect against the athletic Auburn defensive front. "Our biggest concern is always pass protection. We may have to keep some guys in the backfield and load up to help our young linemen. We have to go play. We have to give our team a chance to be successful to have an opportunity to win the game."
While the play of the offensive line is still a question mark, the starting quarterback for the Gamecocks is not. Spurrier praised Syvelle Newton, who made his second consecutive start against Florida Atlantic on Saturday, for his continued improvement against the Owls. "I think Syvelle did much better dropping back and letting it go last week. He made some beautiful throws. I'm telling you, he went back threw it in there in the hitch and go, curl and go, he dropped both of those perfectly to Sidney (Rice). He made some real nice throws." Spurrier then joked, "He didn't run very much (against Florida Atlantic), so
I think he is sort of fancying himself as a drop back passer."
On the defensive side of the ball, Spurrier made it very evident that the Gamecocks will have to be able to slow down Auburn's vaunted rushing attack, which features former Gamecock tailback, Kenny Irons. "They are all well-coached in position and are a very fast team. Very similar to Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, they are all fast teams. I think our defensive team is a lot faster than we were last year; of course our big key is stopping the run," said Spurrier. If the Gamecocks are able to slow down the Tigers running game and force them to pass, then Spurrier believes that will give his team a chance to compete. "Our pass defense, we are pretty highly ranked in the country, we need to try to force these guys to throw. If we can do that, it means we have stopped their run somewhat.
When asked if the memory of last year's loss to the Tigers still lingers, Spurrier responded, "That was a year ago and we got about what we expected or deserved. I told one of our coaches yesterday, not only were we not really into it, but also coaching-wise, we all had bad games… That one is history, you live and learn, regroup and go from there."
Despite all of the questions that still remain for this 2006 Gamecock team, Spurrier seemed encouraged with the improved mindset that his squad has entering into this year's match up with the Tigers. "I think we have a little more confidence going into this game (than last year). Syvelle has played two in a row, we are fairly healthy at wide receiver, Kenny and Sidney are healthy, and hopefully some of those other receivers can come around and help us. Spurrier concluded by saying, "If our line holds up pretty well, hopefully we can hang in there tough with them. Our defense I think will play better this year. It is all wait and see."
Tune in to ESPN at 7:45 p.m. (EST) on Thursday night for the nationally televised showdown between the South Carolina Gamecocks and Auburn Tigers.
Better Effort - Coach Spurrier believes that the team displayed better effort during the victory over Florida Atlantic, but according to Spurrier, there were still too many missed assignments.
James Thompson Returns - Junior offensive lineman James Thompson returns this week from a four game suspension, and Coach Spurrier stated that he will be given a strong look in practice to see how much he is ready to contribute. Thompson was listed as the starter at right guard entering into the season before his suspension.
Red Zone Execution - Coach Spurrier made it clear that the Gamecock offense must be able to capitalize in the red zone if they hope to compete with Auburn. He mentioned the Gamecocks struggles in the red zone against Georgia earlier this year where the offense went 0-3 in red zone opportunities.
Cory Boyd's Status - Cory Boyd sat out the Florida Atlantic game with a sprained ankle, and Coach Spurrier said that Boyd will "try to practice" this week, but they will keep him out if he is not 100%. Spurrier praised running backs Taylor Rank and Mike Davis for their performance in Boyd's absence against Florida Atlantic.
Blake Mitchell Still #2 - Coach Spurrier said that Blake Mitchell remains the #2 quarterback after doing some good things and some not-so-good things against Florida Atlantic. He reiterated that Syvelle Newton is the starter, and with the offensive line struggles, Newton gives this team the best chance to win.
Auburn's Success - Coach Spurrier praised Auburn for their success in recent years, and said they have achieved that level by consistently signing top recruiting classes and having coaching continuity.
Practice Schedule - The team will go through a full practice on both Monday and Tuesday before going through a walk through on Wednesday afternoon. The players will be asked to attend classes on Thursday morning before beginning game preparations that afternoon.
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