Fall Preview: South Carolina vs. Miss. State
South Carolina Offensive Line vs. Mississippi State Defensive Line
The South Carolina offensive line suffered a big blow last year when starter James Thompson was suspended just a day before the season opener against Mississippi State. The offensive line, already a question mark, became an even bigger one as shuffling had to be done, and Web Brown was inserted into the lineup at guard. This hurt the team as it broke up the five guys who had gelled as starters together, and the offense never really got going due to constant pressure in the backfield. As many will remember, it wasn't until a second half, double pass from Syvelle Newton to Cory Boyd that the Gamecocks pulled away for the comfortable victory in Starkville.
The Gamecocks will look to be much more settled on the line this year, and will hope to know without a doubt who their best five guys are. They will face a MSU defensive line looking to replace its two starting defensive tackles, but returning its best pass rusher, Titus Brown, who amassed 7.5 sacks last year. In the middle, JUCO transfer Jesse Bowman and former defensive end Cortez McCraney came out of spring practice as the starters. McCraney transferred to MSU from Memphis University, and is an athletic but raw player, as he only played one year of high school football. Despite his athleticism, McCraney is undersized for a defensive tackle in the SEC, and at only 262 pounds will get run at by a lot of teams. The final starting spot on the Bulldogs' line will be manned by fifth-year senior Avery Hannibal, who finally gets his chance to start. Hannibal, who is from the same hometown as USC quarterback Blake Mitchell, is a hard worker who as waited a long time for his chance, but is also undersized standing only 6-1 and weighing in at 245 pounds. The Gamecock offensive line will focus on stopping Brown and Bowman, while single-teaming McCraney and Hannibal. If Carolina's offensive line progresses as it did last year, then it should hold the MSU defensive line at bay for the majority of the night.
South Carolina Running Backs vs. Mississippi State Linebackers
In last year's match up, the biggest play by a Gamecock running back came through the air, on the 54–yard reception from Newton to Boyd. Boyd was also solid in the running game, racking up 93-yards on 12 carries. The Gamecocks will hope to get more help from Mike Davis in the contest this year, as he and Boyd provide a very formidable and often underrated 1-2 punch out of the backfield. Davis couldn't seem to get anything going last year, rushing for only 10 yards on 7 carries.
At linebacker the Bulldogs will be looking to replace star linebacker and leading tackler, Quinton Culberson. Making the shift over from weakside to middle linebacker to replace Culberson is junior Jamar Chaney. Chaney, who has played in every game of his Bulldog career, seems ready to thrive in his new role as leader of the State defense. Starting along side Chaney will be sophomore Jamon Hughes and senior Gabe O'Neal.
Senior running back Cory Boyd will look to have another strong showing against the Bulldogs this season.
South Carolina Wide Receivers vs. Mississippi State Secondary
South Carolina's wide receivers will face a new look Mississippi State secondary from the one it saw last year. Starter Keith Fitzhugh made the move from strong safety to free safety, while playmaker Derek Pegues made the move from cornerback to free safety. Although this gives the Bulldogs two SEC battle-tested performers at safety, they will need to find some answers at cornerback. The two most likely candidates to fill the void at corner are 5-10, sophomores Marcus Washington and Anthony Johnson. Johnson and Washington separated themselves from converted wide receivers Keon Humphries and Tay Bowser as the starters in the spring. They both played a lot as true freshmen last year and the coaches believe they are ready to be full time starters. The Bulldog faithful are hoping the changes in the secondary will lead to a more effective group than the one that gave up over 205 yards a game through the air last year.
The Bulldog secondary will attempt to stop a Gamecock receiving corp that will feature a new look of its own, without departed second-round draft pick Sidney Rice. Though Rice only caught two balls in Starkville last year, he will be sorely missed as the Gamecocks will be searching for a playmaker to emerge in Rice's place. While Kenny McKinley will be a solid number one receiver, the Gamecocks could use a taller receiver to go up and get the ball over the 5-10 MSU corners. Early returns on Jason Barnes have been very positive, and he is the leading candidate to help replace Rice in that mold, if it can be done. Often overlooked, however, is 6-4 athlete Joseph Hills. Hills is as athletic as almost anyone one the team, but may need a year to learn the nuances of the receiver position. By this game neither the Carolina receivers, nor the MSU corners will be unknowns anymore, and both will have valuable experience. While there is no real way to predict who will step up for either team, South Carolina has the edge as far as how many they can try out if something isn't working, where as Mississippi State only has two converted wide receivers behind their starters.
Overall South Carolina Offense vs. Mississippi State Defense
While the Gamecock offense struggled to get anything consistently going last year against a solid MSU defense, don't expect to see the same when week five rolls around this year. The State defensive line spent a lot of time in the Gamecock backfield last year, and the key to an effective offense will be stopping a repeat performance. The Carolina offensive line should be in a more settled situation this year and will key on stopping Brown, as the MSU defensive line doesn't have a proven player to take away the double-teams.
With time to throw, USC quarterback Blake Mitchell should be able to pick apart the young Bulldog corners, though he will have to watch out for the two playmaking safeties. The Gamecocks will hope to jump off to a big lead early and should do so as MSU only scored 28 first quarter points the entire 2007 season. This would force Mississippi State to start throwing the ball down field and get away from their normal offensive philosophies. This would also allow backup players such as quarterback Chris Smelley and the young Gamecock receivers to get some valuable SEC experience.
South Carolina Defensive Line vs. Mississippi State Offensive Line
South Carolina's talented defensive line will look to get in the face of the MSU quarterback and force him into bad decisions. Trying to prevent this from happening will be a State offensive line that returns all five starters from a year ago. While the MSU offensive line play has been poor at times under Croom, the importance of having veterans on the line can not be downplayed, and the Bulldogs will have experience this year. The best player on MSU's line may be starting left tackle Michael Brown, who transferred from Florida last year for personal reasons. Brown and Freshman All-SEC performer Craig Jenkins are a formidable duo at the tackle spots. At guard, J.D. Hamilton, who started at tackle last year, and Anthony Strauder will be joined by senior Royce Blackledge at center to round out the Bulldog line.
While the Gamecock defensive line will be much improved over last year's group, do not expect them to have their way with the Bulldog offensive line. The Gamecocks are deep and talented, but the Bulldog line will feature SEC-quality size across the board and will also have the experience advantage over the Gamecocks. USC's defensive line will have to battle all game to get by a unit that should be much improved.
Marvin Sapp and the USC defense will hope to have a repeat performance of last year's shutout victory.
South Carolina Linebackers vs. Mississippi State Running Backs
South Carolina linebacker Jasper Brinkley introduced himself to MSU quarterback Michael Henig and the rest of the SEC in last year's opener, with a bone-jarring sack on his first play from scrimmage in a Gamecock uniform. Brinkley will need no introduction this time, as he returns for his senior year receiving preseason First Team All-SEC honors. He will be joined by his twin brother Casper Brinkley and sophomore Rodney Paulk as they try to slow down the Mississippi State rushing attack. The trio will attempt to stop sophomore sensation Anthony Dixon, who is a big, talented bruiser that also has some speed. Dixon broke school freshman records for scores and yards last year while splitting carries and will be State's most dangerous offensive playmaker. Dixon isn't the only talented player in the backfield, however, as their most explosive back could come in the form of newcomer and former four-star according to Scout.com, Robert Elliott. Elliott's speed and running style could be a perfect complement to the 6-1, 230 pound, Dixon.
The Gamecock defense will have their hands full attempting to stop Dixon and the MSU backfield, but will probably sell out to stop the run and force Henig to pass to beat them. Strong safety Emanuel Cook, who is one of the better tacklers on the team, will probably play close to the line of scrimmage for the majority of the game. While Dixon has the talent to be a premier back in the league, he will need some type of consistent passing game to keep the pressure off of him and teams from loading the box with eight players.
South Carolina Secondary vs. Mississippi State Wide Receivers
Mississippi State returns its leading receiver in Tony Burks, who caught 35 balls last year in his first year with the program. During the spring, however, it was receivers Brandon McCrae, Jamayel Smith, and Aubrey Bell who impressed the coaches with their playmaking ability. They, along with possession receiver Lance Long, give the MSU coaches five guys they are comfortable with, while tight ends Eric Butler and Dezmond Sherrod are big, talented seniors who can catch the football.
The South Carolina secondary will have to be careful not to get caught up in the statistics when preparing for a State team that won only three games last year. They will need to play well to stop the State receivers, but they have the talent and depth to do so. While Carlos Thomos, Captain Munnerlyn, Emanuel Cook, and Brandon Isaac form a solid starting four, just as important will be the emergence of safety Darian Stewart and cornerback Stoney Woodson as reserves, making the Gamecock secondary just as deep as the Bulldog receiving corp. Versatile newcomer Sam Pope can play both cornerback and safety and may be a better match up with Mississippi State's taller receivers.
Overall South Carolina Defense vs. Mississippi State Offense
The MSU offense will only be as effective as returning quarterback Michael Henig. While he struggled last year, completing only 43.8% of his passes and throwing nine interceptions to only seven touchdowns, the coaches believe he has gotten better with consistency in his throws and reads. Henig will be looking for revenge on a Gamecock defense that knocked him out of the game last year with a broken collarbone - the first of two times he broke that same bone. If Henig is not effective, then junior college transfer and former four-star quarterback Josh Riddell will be given his chance to lead the Bulldog offense. Ridell is a talented kid who threw 54 touchdowns in his junior college career, but has yet to fully grasp the Mississippi State offense.
MSU Offensive Coordinator Woody McCorvey will run a west coast offense predicated on completing short, high percentage passes and controlling the clock with the running game. While on paper the Bulldogs seem to have the personnel in place, and this system should fit Henig perfectly, the Bulldogs could not put things together last year, finishing 11th in the SEC in scoring and total offense.
Both South Carolina's defensive line and MSU's offensive line are expected to be much improved from a year ago.
Both South Carolina and Mississippi State will look to improve on certain aspects of their special teams this fall. While Mississippi State was dismal in the kicking game and kick coverage, South Carolina was just as bad in the return game. State hopes the return of a more confident Adam Carlson and Blake McAdams will pay dividends at kicker and punter, respectively. South Carolina is optimistic that speedy newcomer Chris Culliver can make an immediate impact in the return game. If the Mississippi State coverage team does not improve from last year, then Culliver may get his first real shot at breaking one. Derek Pegues can be dangerous as both a kick and punt returner for MSU if he can get the proper blocking in front of him. Lastly, an interesting fact is both MSU and South Carolina have new coaches involved in their special teams. South Carolina hired Shane Beamer away from the Bulldogs during the offseason and named him co-special teams coordinator, while Mississippi State gave former graduate assistant Reed Stringer oversight of the MSU special teams.
Keys To Victory
I. Jump out front with an early lead
The Gamecocks will definitely be favored in this game, and the last thing a team needs to do when favored is allow the underdog to hang around. The longer MSU stays in the game the more confident they get, so it will be best if the Gamecocks come out of the gates firing, unlike last year.
II. Don't give up the big play
It is going to be tough for MSU to consistently move the ball on the Gamecock defense, so limiting the big play will probably limit MSU's points. If they score on a few big plays, then this too will raise their confidence level and allow them to hang around and have a chance to win.
III. Don't be overconfident
Even though State only won three games last year, they are still an SEC program, and just showing up will not ensure a Gamecock victory. If USC stays focused and plays their game, then they should leave Williams-Brice Stadium with a victory.
While the Mississippi State offense returns nine starters from a year ago, including their quarterback and all five offensive linemen, they have yet to prove that they can consistently play with the rest of the SEC. Henig and the receivers may be improved, but South Carolina Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix will stack the line of scrimmage and force them to show just how improved they are. Until South Carolina respects Mississippi State's passing game, they will continue to load the box. While no SEC team should be taken lightly, and Mississippi State may be improved over last year's team, Croom has only gone on the road and won one game in the SEC during his time at Mississippi State and don't expect him to get number two in Columbia.
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