Offensive Fireworks Expected In Memphis
The Steve Spurrier-led Gamecocks enter the game on a late season tear, that has seen them average 482 yards of total offense and 33 points per game over the final three games. Houston's offense is no slouch though, as they boast the nation's #6 ranked offensive attack by averaging 440 yards per outing and scoring a shade below 33 points per game.
The Cougars, who are fresh off winning the Conference USA Championship game, are led by senior quarterback Kevin Kolb. The 6'3, 225 pound Kolb has shattered multiple school and conference records as a four year starter, and he is widely considered to be one of the top quarterbacks available in the upcoming NFL draft. This year alone, Kolb has thrown for 3,423 yards with 27 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. On top of that, the athletic Kolb has the ability to escape out of the pocket when plays break down. The South Carolina defense, which was burned in last year's bowl game by Missouri's dual-threat standout Brad Smith, must keep containment on Kolb throughout the game.
Kolb is surrounded by an experienced and talented crop of skill players in the Houston offense. The Cougars feature a 1-2 punch in the backfield with senior Jackie Battle and junior Anthony Alridge. The 6'2, 250 pound Battle is a punishing, between-the-tackles runner, who has totaled 858 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season. The more fleet-footed Alridge serves as the perfect complement to Battle, and has racked up over 900 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns, while averaging an unheard of 10.6 yards per carry.
Houston's wide receiver rotation is equally as impressive, as they have four receivers with at least 30 receptions on the year. The Cougars are led by 5'8, 175 pound senior speedster Vincent Marshall, who has 71 catches for 778 yards and 6 touchdowns in the 2006 campaign. He is joined by junior, deep-threat Donnie Avery, who has compiled 50 receptions for 780 yards and 5 touchdowns this season. The speed of Marshall and Avery is complemented by the size and athleticism of 6'5, 215 pound junior Jeron Harvey, who has put up some impressive numbers of his own with 39 receptions for 638 yards and 4 scores. The final piece of the Cougars dreaded foursome wide receiver rotation is 6'3, 205 pound senior Biren Ealy, who has 31 catches for 372 yards and 6 touchdowns on the year.
The Cougars use a shoot-and-run veer offense, led by 4th year Head Coach Art Briles. They have enjoyed much offensive success this season on their way to a 10-3 record, and they will pose a formidable challenge to the Gamecock defense, which is only surrendering 17.3 points per game.
Houston's most notable victory of the year came in their fourth game of the season against the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Cougars hung 509 yards of total offense on the OSU defense, en route to a 34-25 win. The Cougars then gave the Miami Hurricanes all they could handle in a 14-13 loss a week later. That loss was the first of a three game slide for the Cougars, with the other defeats coming against Louisiana Lafayette and Southern Miss, but they rebounded to win their final six games, including the rematch against Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship game. The Cougars will enter the Liberty Bowl riding high, but they will not be the only potent offense on the field in Memphis.
South Carolina quarterback Blake Mitchell drops back to pass during the Gamecocks 31-28 victory over rival Clemson.
The Gamecocks, who finished the regular season with a 7-5 record, have some offensive firepower of their own. Carolina is led by a wealth of quality skill players, including All-SEC wide receiver Sidney Rice. The 6'4. 200 pound Rice, who has totaled 64 receptions for 951 yards and 9 touchdowns this season, runs crisp routes, possesses extraordinary athletic ability, and has deceptive speed. He has terrorized man coverage throughout his two seasons at USC, and opposing defenses are often forced to design their defensive schemes around stopping him. When the opposition pays too much attention to Rice, however, sophomore Kenny McKinley is capable of making them pay. The 5'11, 175 pound McKinley is fearless going over the middle, and is elusive after the catch. He has racked up 48 catches for 768 yards and 3 touchdowns of his own during the 2006 campaign. The Gamecocks third receiving threat is versatile tailback Cory Body, who thrives off catching the ball out of the backfield. As the forgotten man in USC's passing attack, he has compiled 31 receptions for 361 yards and 2 scores this season.
Boyd is joined in the backfield by sophomore workhorse Mike Davis. Boyd and Davis form a punishing backfield tandem for the Gamecocks, and both excel in gaining yards after contact. Boyd is Carolina's leading rusher on the season with 729 yards and 6 touchdowns, while Davis has totaled 402 yards with 6 touchdowns of his own. With the Gamecocks high powered passing attack, these two are often forgotten, but they are productive and steady performers out of the Carolina backfield.
South Carolina's offense is orchestrated by junior quarterback Blake Mitchell. The 6'3, 215 pound Mitchell, who was benched earlier in the year due to pass blocking struggles by the offensive line, has closed the 2006 season firing on all cylinders. Since working his way back into the rotation, Mitchell has thrown for 1,144 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions over the last 14 quarters of play, while arguably playing the best football of his career.
The Gamecocks will be going up against a relatively average Cougar defense, which ranks 66th in the country in total defense (339 ypg) and 52nd in scoring defense (22 ppg). With two high flying offenses on display in Memphis later this month, the defenses will have their hands full to simply keep up. This year's Liberty Bowl should showcase an entertaining, high scoring contest that is sure to keep fans on the edge of their seats. Don't miss the fireworks. We'll see you in Memphis.
When: Friday, December 29, 2006 at 4:30 p.m. (EST)
Where: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, TN
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