Keys to victory against Kentucky
I. Limit the Bad Plays
At Coach Steve Spurrier's call-in show on Tuesday night, he mentioned how at Georgia and in last week's win over Mississippi State the defense gave the opposition too many extra opportunities. At Georgia, the defense gave the Bulldogs three extra opportunities - two from Carlos Thomas' personal fouls, and one on a roughing the kicker penalty. Against the other Bulldogs of Mississippi State, the defense came up with a stop while backed up against their own end zone, only to give up an easy first down on what Spurrier called a "phantom" holding penalty. The Gamecocks also negated a 75-yard Captain Munnerlyn punt return for a touchdown on a holding penalty.
For South Carolina to win the most meaningful game yet in the Spurrier era, they will have to limit these mistakes. The Kentucky offense is far too potent to give them any extra chances to strike. Their defense has also shown a knack for making the big play and forcing turnovers. Simply by yardage given up, the Kentucky defense is only slightly better than a year ago, but the turnovers have allowed them to keep teams out of the endzone and allow their high-powered offense to win games. While quarterback Chris Smelley has looked extremely poised and confident for a young quarterback, he is still a redshirt freshman and sometime has a tendency to throw downfield into coverage rather than dumping to the underneath route. Smelley will need to play within the system, hit the open man, and allow his talented running backs to work against the nation's 103rd ranked rush defense.
II. Contain Rafael Little
Andre' Woodson and the Kentucky receivers may get all the publicity on the electric Wildcat offense, but Rafael Little does the dirty work. The biggest difference between the early 2006 Kentucky team that lost four of its first seven games and the team South Carolina will face Thursday that has won ten of its last eleven games, is the emergence of a healthy Little. On the year, Little has rushed for 547-yards and averaged an impressive 6.7 yards per carry. While Kentucky is known as a passing team because of Woodson's prowess, they are actually ranked second only to Arkansas' combination of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in the SEC in rushing.
The South Carolina defense was able to stack the box in the second half against Mississippi State, but they won't have that luxury here as the defense will be spread out covering three and four wide receiver formations. Kentucky will hit Little on sprint-draw plays and likely use the pass to setup the run, much like Spurrier did for twelve years at the University of Florida. The Gamecocks will be well aware of the T.L. Hanna graduate, who will get his last chance at knocking off his home state school on the biggest stage the two teams have ever met on.
III. Pressure Woodson
Kentucky Offensive Coordinator and former South Carolina wide receivers coach Joker Phillips will use the speedy Little to keep the Gamecocks' defensive ends honest and off of his golden-armed signal caller. The defense will have a tough task at hand against such a balanced offense, but will have to take advantage of the few opportunities they get to pin their ears back and rush the passer in third-and-long or other obvious passing situations. It will be a fun chess match to watch, as Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix mixes up his calls against Phillips. The Gamecocks may need to use their versatile linemen and linebackers to mix in the zone blitz as a change of pace from their normal man press defense.
IV. Rack up the yards with Cory Boyd and Mike Davis
A year ago in Lexington, Boyd and quarterback Syvelle Newton each scored a touchdown on the ground while rushing for 113 and 77-yards, respectively. Newton is gone, but Boyd and Davis have been one of the better rushing tandems in the country during the first five games of the season, combining for 651-yards and four touchdowns apiece. The Kentucky run defense gives up 203-yards a game, which should give the offense a chance to milk the clock and keep Woodson and crew on the sideline. Spurrier will likely call a balanced game if all parts of the Gamecocks offense are working well, but will need his backs to produce and the offensive line to open holes to have that luxury.
V. Make the Play
A season ago South Carolina lost four conference games by a touchdown or less, including a one-point loss on the home turf of the eventual National Champion. Needless to say, in all those games the Gamecocks had opportunities where a play here or there could have changed the entire complexion of the season. Even in the 12-point loss to LSU this season South Carolina had its chances to make a game-changing play or two but couldn't make the important interception or fall on the loose ball. In South Carolina's wins so far this year, they have been able to get away with dropping would-be interceptions, but they cannot afford to do so Thursday night.
The truth is when good teams play each other, the game is often decided by a few select plays scattered throughout the contest, and winners make those plays while the losers don't. Steve Spurrier didn't come back to college football to hide out in a sub-par conference and blow out teams in meaningless games. He would have gone to the ACC for that. Instead, he came back to the SEC, the best conference in the nation, to take South Carolina to the top and do things that have never been done there before. When 7:46 rolls around and the no. 8 ranked Wildcats face off with the no. 11 Gamecocks in Williams- Brice stadium Thursday night, fans will witness one of the biggest games in South Carolina history. The time for South Carolina to make those plays is now. This is what big time college football is all about.
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