Five Questions For The Carolina/Auburn Game
1. Can the Gamecock defense contain Kenny Irons and the vaunted Auburn rushing attack?
Kenny Irons will make his long awaited return to Columbia, SC on Thursday evening when South Carolina hosts the Auburn Tigers, and despite what he may be saying to the media leading up to this contest, he has had this game circled on his calendar since the day he transferred from South Carolina to the University of Auburn. Word is already circulating that Irons has set a personal goal to rush for 200+ yards against the Gamecocks on Thursday, but if South Carolina hopes to compete against Auburn, they will have to contain Irons, especially in red zone situations. That is obviously easier said than done, as Irons is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and is widely considered to be one of the premiere tailbacks in the country.
Much like the struggles of 2005, the South Carolina rush defense has left a lot to be desired through the first four games of the 2006 season. The Gamecock defense is currently surrendering 176.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks a lowly 101st in the nation. However, despite giving up large chunks of yardage between the twenties, the Carolina defense has consistently shown the ability to be resilient in the red zone dating back to the second half of last season. Opponents are only scoring on 50% of their red zone possessions this season against the Gamecocks, and they are only converting 25% of their opportunities into touchdowns. There's little doubt that Kenny Irons and the Auburn running game will move the ball this evening, but it will be key for the Gamecock defense to hold the Tigers out of the end zone.
2. Will the young South Carolina offensive line give the Gamecock offense time to operate?
The South Carolina offensive line has been a lingering question mark since week one, and despite experimenting with multiple lineup changes, they have yet to find the combination they are looking for. The season ending injury to Gurminder Thind and the loss of William Brown for 2-3 weeks have not helped matters, but as Coach Spurrier has stated, the show must go on. The Gamecocks have decided to go with two of their heralded true freshmen in the starting lineup in left tackle Hutch Eckerson and right guard Garrett Anderson, but they will face baptism by fire this evening as they will be asked to compete against one of the elite defensive fronts in the SEC.
Despite not being able to generate much of a push in the running game, the Gamecock offensive line provided adequate time in pass protection when facing Georgia three weeks ago. They will have to hope for a similar or better performance this evening against a talented Tiger defense in order to give Syvelle Newton, Sidney Rice, and the Gamecock offense time to operate.
3. How will Syvelle Newton respond against top flight competition?
Despite learning an entirely new system on the fly and playing quarterback for the first time in a year and a half, Syvelle Newton has performed admirably over the past two weeks leading the Gamecock offense against Wofford and Florida Atlantic. However, tonight he will face an entirely different level of competition against the Auburn Tigers. The Auburn defense is renowned for their fast and physical style of play, and Newton will have to make smart, quick decisions in the pocket. Newton has been thrown into the mix at quarterback to generate a spark for the Gamecock offense and counteract the offensive line struggles, but he must also play efficiently and the protect the football. That's a lot to ask of the versatile senior, but Coach Spurrier has expressed his confidence in Newton, simply describing him as a "gamer."
4. Can the South Carolina secondary hold their own against the Auburn passing attack?
Entering into this season, the South Carolina secondary was considered by many to be the biggest question mark on the team after the early departures of Ko Simpson and Jon Joseph. However, four games into the season, the young secondary is surpassing all expectations and is currently ranked #3 in the country in pass defense. With that said, the secondary has yet to face a passing attack the caliber of the one they will see this evening. Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox is one of the most efficient passers in the conference, and he lives off the play action game. The Auburn offense also features one of the top receiving threats in the SEC in Courtney Taylor. Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix likes to put the Gamecock corners in man to man coverage periodically throughout the game, and it will be important for them to hold their own and not bite on play action fakes against the Tigers.
5. Can the Gamecock crowd become a factor?
South Carolina fans are widely renowned for being some of the most loyal and passionate fans in the country, and when the Gamecocks are playing well, Williams Brice Stadium can become one of the most hostile stadiums in all of college football. Thursday night will once again feature a crowd of over 80,000 strong, and as always, the atmosphere will be electric to start the game. However, the Gamecocks must play well enough to keep the crowd in the game throughout the night, and if they are able to compete with the #2 team in the nation into the fourth quarter, then the raucous garnet and black clad crowd will present a home field advantage like no other.
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