Spurrier optimistic about chances against LSU

This weekend looms as a major test for a team touted by its coach as being able to contend for an SEC championship, when USC will face #2 LSU. But that coach is Steve Spurrier, and he showed no fear in his weekly press conference. Faced with the daunting task of taking on the highest ranked defense in the land, when challenged about it, he had an immediate answer. Read inside for the full story.

Steve Spurrier showed plenty of respect for LSU as he talked about the coming matchup, saying, "They've got a big-time football program at LSU, and they've got it rolling right now. I don't need to sit here and tell you how good a team they are."

He didn't back down, however, when challenged about how his offense, which has struggled in the passing game, would fare against the team with statistically the best defense in America. He replied, "We've seen a lot of good defenses now. When we played Clemson last year, they were ranked 5th in the nation in total defense, and we had our best offensive game of the year. That's the way it worked out that day. We've got to believe we can throw the ball."

"Their offense is pretty good too," Spurrier said. "Their offense is one of the best too. It's not like their defense has to play the whole game. We're looking forward to playing LSU, and getting into a ballgame somewhat like the Georgia game. Pretty hard for us to go down there and outscore them. Hopefully it will be a field goal game, and we've got an excellent field goal kicker in Ryan Succop. That's the kind of game we'd like to have happen."

In talking about competing for an SEC championship, Spurrier acknowledged that his team could lose to the heavily favored Tigers, and still be in contention. "We don't have to beat LSU to still be in contention. There's a lot of ball left. We've not been as good throwing the ball as we thought we would be, but the other areas, we're about on schedule. I thought we'd play better special teams as far as covering kicks and maybe running one back. We have a lot of room for improvement. We're trying to get better every week. We'll see what happens down there. You always believe you've got a chance. But you also have to be realistic with your team, and say, 'Hey, if it doesn't work out, we've got Mississippi State, Kentucky, Vandy, North Carolina; we've got a lot of ball games left.' When it's all over, we'll see if we've contended or not."

When asked if the LSU crowd will have any effect on his team, he said, "Death Valley is one of the loudest. They'll have 92,000 going crazy. I am glad it's a day game. Sometimes a day game is not quite as loud as it is at night. It will be a very loud atmosphere. I can't pick the loudest. Same as Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, it hasn't bothered our guys."

Last year, the Gamecocks were 4-1 on the road, with the only loss being a 17-16 setback to eventual national champion Florida in Gainesville, and they defeated Georgia earlier this season in front of a similar crowd to what they'll face at LSU.

"We worry more about ourselves than our opponent. If we do the best we can, then that's all you can really concern yourself about," he said.

USC has had to rely primarily on the strength of its running game to win the first three games, as the aerial attack has been less than stellar. "It's not as much fun for an offensive coach to play the way we have had to play, but for us to have a chance to win the game, that's obviously what we have to do. Seems like every game we open up thinking we can throw it here and there, hit one here and there. Then something hits you in the head - says you better start running the ball, or you're going to throw the game away. We started running, and we've run pretty well. We need to mix it up with runs and passes, get our quarterback playing with confidence, receivers making some plays here and there, and we'll have a chance, hopefully, against everybody we play."

"We really need some improvement in the passing game – passes, pass protection, the whole thing - if we're going to have chance for a big year."

When discussing starting senior quarterback Blake Mitchell's play, he said, "You've got to turn the ball loose. We just can't get him to turn it loose right now. Fire it between the linebackers – we've got guys in there. Maybe he'll do it this week. We'll keep working on it. Quarterbacking, it's mainly confidence. You can't wait for the guy to get open or you'll never have a chance. You've got to anticipate the guy getting open and throw it in there on time and let him run into it."

"It was discouraging last week, to say the least. We've got to keep throwing. If he can't throw any better than last week, then maybe Chris Smelley will get his chance again. Blake knows this. I'm not trying to put undue pressure on Blake."

"We're hoping at some point our offensive line gets a lot better. We think they're capable, and we think they can block a lot better than they do. If we can do that, (then) Blake has got to get some confidence like he (had when he played well) late last year."

"We don't have playmaker guys out there right now; we're trying to find some playmaker guys besides Kenny McKinley. As coaches, we have to keep giving some new players the opportunities to make some plays. Jason and Mark Barnes, we'll try to coach those guys a little harder. Jason Barnes is doing some good things, and Mark Barnes, we have to give him a chance now. See if they can go play. Play better than what the other guys have been doing."

Spurrier also singled out another freshman receiver for praise. Dion Lecorn, whose possibility of a redshirt year was burned when he came in to play against S.C. State. "Dion Lecorn, seeing someone go down there and hit somebody gets us coaches excited," he said. "We need some tougher players; sometimes our guys are not real tough. Football's a tough sport. Dion will go down there and block somebody. That was encouraging the other night. Our receivers need to block, that's extremely important for our wide receivers right now."

Spurrier and his staff have had to shake up their starting lineup every game this season, and this game will be no different. Previous changes have been an effort to get the best players making plays out on the field, and while the staff continues to juggle the starting line for that reason, injuries also forced some changes this week. Starting defensive tackle Nathan Pepper suffered a season-ending knee injury against S.C. State, and Brandon Isaac is out for at least a week with an injured shoulder that was dislocated.

In a surprise move, freshman Cliff Matthews and senior Casper Brinkley have swapped places on defense. Matthews has moved to the starting weakside linebacker spot to take advantage of his speed, while Brinkley has returned to defensive end, the position he played last season. "Coach Nix and Coach Cooper just felt that Casper is a little bit better as a defensive end, instead of Casper standing up and playing outside backer. Spurrier said. "We think he's better with his hand on the ground. Cliff Matthews is a youngster who can really play; he can run from sideline to sideline. We felt he would be better at that stand up defensive end/outside linebacker position. With Nate Pepper hurt, that's a move we thought is best for our defensive team."

Brinkley started all 13 games last season before moving to outside linebacker this season, though he has played both end and linebacker during Carolina's first three games. He is tied for second on the team with 17 tackles.

One other area the Gamecocks must improve in is their special teams play. Spurrier said, "Our special teams had a chance to block three punts the other night and barely missed. We have to keep trying until we find a guy who has the knack to block a punt or something. We'll keep trying to find the right guys out there."

Notes:

- Spurrier said freshman receiver Joseph Hills is still not 100% from an injury suffered in pre-season practice, and is likely to be redshirted. He also said that Matt Clements could also be redshirted.

- Spurrier noted that he hopes quarterback Chris Smelley, who missed the past two games with a bruised shoulder, is healthy enough to play this week.

- Chris Culliver has recovered enough from his injury that Spurrier expects him to play against LSU.

- Gurminder Thind remains doubtful to see much playing time with a foot injury, but is listed on the depth chart.

- Spurrier praised sophomore Captain Munnerlyn, saying, "I love watching him run around out there. Captain Munnerlyn really wants to play." Another player he praised was center Web Brown, of whom he said, "Web Brown has been playing the best of all of them."

- USC lost its last game at Death Valley in 2002, but did win in their previous trip in 1994, escaping with an 18-17 victory during a driving rainstorm.

Polls: Spurrier had his most humorous moment of the week when he talked about the Gamecocks' rankings in the polls. After moving up to 12th in one poll and 14th in the other, Spurrier said someone told him, "Coach, thank goodness your games weren't on TV. That has been helpful in the rankings." He attributed USC's leap up in the polls to their 3-0 record and being a member of the SEC, as well as beating Georgia on the road. He said, "Georgia is a good team. Our defense has played well keeping guys out of the end zone, that's for sure. We need to play a lot better to stay in the top 25. If our team ends up there, that would be pretty doggone good."


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