Gamecocks ready for trip to the Ozarks
"We had a nice practice," Steve Spurrier said following the session. "We'll try to play our best game of the year. We haven't played it yet, and we're still looking for it. Maybe it will happen, we'll find out."
In order to play their best game, the Gamecocks will have to eliminate the mistakes that have cost them during their two game losing streak. The coaches have focused on eliminationg mistakes in practice this week, with some success. However, whether the smart play carries over to game day is the question.
"We haven't had any false starts, and we didn't get any holding penalties [in practice], said Spurrier. "We'll find out if we can play any smarter if we don't rough the punter. We've done that about every other game."
Carolina will also look to do better covering kickoffs. They have allowed several long kick returns in the last two games, including one that set up Tennessee's game-tying field goal at the end of the fourth quarter last weekend.
"We've had a few changes there," Spurrier said. "We don't want to kick the perfect return ball. We'll try to do something better than we did last week. We kicked a couple perfect return balls last week. We weren't trying to last week, but we did."
Run defense to face stiff challenge this weekend
At the start of the season, Carolina seemed unable to stop the run at times. The defense has improved in that area, but the biggest test will come this weekend against Arkansas. The Razorbacks feature the top two leading rushers in the SEC in Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Making things even more difficult, Arkansas wide receiver Marcus Monk is finally returning from injury to add some life to the passing game.
The book on Arkansas is simple: stop the run, and you stop the Razorbacks. As Tyrone Nix said Thursday, though, that is easier said than done.
"Nobody seems to really have stopped them from running the football," he said. "It's a challenge. If I had two backs like that, I'd try to run it as much as I could. I feel like they're being smart coaches by putting the ball in their playmakers' hands. I'd try to get it to them every way I could, also. Even when they throw it, they're throwing it to them."
Asked to describe what Arkansas does to create opportunities for their running backs, Nix cracked a smile and referred to last year's Heisman Trophy balloting, where McFadden was the runner up.
"Their style is to hand it off to 5 and 25 and see what they can do," he said. "You're almost crazy not to give those guys the opportunity to run. They don't usually invite you [to the Heisman awards show] unless you're one of the best players in college football. When you've got two big time running backs, it's hard to not give it to them. At any time, they can make an explosive run and take it 90 yards."
Despite the return of Monk, which should enable Arkansas to stretch the field, Nix does not plan to double the 6'6" wide receiver. He will stack the box, bringing up 8 or 9 players, and rely on corners Captain Munnerlyn and Carlos Thomas to hold their own.
"Our emphasis is going to be stopping the run, regardless if Monk is in there," said Nix. "You still have those two backs that you have to deal with, and that's what we're going to try to do first."
As he left the field, Nix added that he does have one trick up his sleeve that he may pull out if he becomes desperate to stop the run.
"If we can't do anything else, I guess we'll put all 11 up there."
Mitchell ready for return to starting role
Charged with the task of leading the offense will once again be senior quarterback Blake Mitchell. There is a strange symmetry to Mitchell's last two seasons. In both, he started slow, was benched during the middle of the season, but came off the bench in the 9th game to regain the starting job. Last season, that 9th game was against Arkansas, and he played brilliantly over the rest of the season. This season, Mitchell's return to the starting role is against the Razorbacks, and he has a chance for another late-season surge.
Despite the similarities, Mitchell did not want to think about the similar situations. In fact, he emphasized that the key to him playing well is to limit how much he thinks.
"When I go out there and I can just play and let it go and not worry about anything is when I play my best," Mitchell explained. "That's what I did last week. I pretty much knew I had nothing to lose, and played as hard as I could and tried to make as few mistakes as possible. I've just got to go out there [this week] and not worry about anything, and just play the game, and have fun."
Mitchell sits in the top ten of many of the career passing records at Carolina, and another strong finish could land him near the top. However, he again said he cannot think about that if he hopes to play well. Instead, he opined that the knowledge that his career is nearing an end helps him relax.
"I just feel like I really have nothing to lose," he said. "I try my best every time I go out there. It's just sometimes things don't go as you wish."
At times, Mitchell has been criticized for what fans perceive as a lack of competitive fire. When he was benched, some thought he took the move too calmly. Mitchell, on the other hand, credits his ability to stay level with allowing him to come back strong.
"I've just been sitting there waiting patiently, trying to be ready at any time," he said. "I finally got my chance and I went out there and did some decent things. I'm just glad to get back out there. Hopefully we can come up there Saturday and put some things together and hopefully win this one."
Like other players, Mitchell said the team is over the disappointing loss to Tennessee. He said that getting back on the field, even the practice field, is just what the Gamecocks needed to get the loss out of their heads.
"Just being out here in practice and working hard and everybody being upbeat, and just taking the second half of last week and building on that [helps us get over the loss]," he said. "We know that we can play and put things together. It's just a matter of not shooting ourselves in the foot."
The Gamecocks and Razorbacks will face off at 8 p.m. EST on Saturday night. The game will be televised by ESPN2.
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