Todd Ellis previews USC/Georgia battle
South Carolina's matchup with no. 2 ranked Georgia on Saturday has many a Gamecock fan wondering if a win over the Bulldogs is a realistic possibility. Complicating the task is the question of whether or not Carolina will be able to rebound from last week's devastating loss to Vanderbilt. The Cocks will, after all, be facing a revenge-minded group from Athens G-A, wearing those silver britches, intent on avenging last season's 16-12 loss to the Gamecocks in their own Sanford Stadium backyard.
Todd Ellis, a former USC great and the current radio play-by-play voice of the Gamecocks, believes Carolina certainly has an opportunity to make it two in a row against the 'Dawgs come Saturday. So what must Carolina do to compensate for what appears, talent-wise at least, to be a mismatch?
"Well, the main thing is you have to take away their strength initially and see if they can balance that back," Ellis explained Tuesday following Steve Spurrier's weekly press conference. "We did that last year, which was (stopping) their run game. You give up 250 plus yards of rushing against ULL. We come back the next week and slow them (Georgia) down and force them to throw the football down the field. And they drop some, we knock some down, we pick some off. You have to take their strength first and stop it or slow it down tremendously where they make a counter move on. And I think it's a good game plan against Georgia anytime, which is if they are running the ball, they are hard to beat. So you've got to stop that initially."
"Then anything can happen after that," Ellis continued. "Because last year, I don't think they had the talent outside consistently to make plays against our secondary to beat us throwing the ball. And that proved out. They dropped balls, a couple they clearly had and could have scored, but we made a couple of big hits and contacts and knocked the ball loose. This year they have looked a lot better at wide receiver than they did last year, so we'll see how that goes."
Ellis Johnson's Carolina defense surrendered 21 second-half points in last week's loss. So with a Georgia offense that's already scored 13 touchdowns in two games hungry to build on those stats, what can Carolina do to slow down the SEC's top scoring team?
"They've got to stop the sprint draw with Knowshon Moreno," Ellis said. "That's the first thing that they (defense) must do. If you don't stop that, it's going to be problematic. And then you got to knock the tight ends out of their routes early on. They make a living on third down-and-four hitting those tight ends on routes in the flats or right over the middle and making first downs. Then they take the big shots down the field. So if you don't stop Knowshon Moreno on the sprint draw and then knock the tight ends off balance a little bit, it will be a long day."
As for bouncing back after a tough loss, Carolina's career passing leader has experienced that challenge as both a player and a fan. Interestingly, those "tough ones" may be a little less hard to get over for the players than the rest of us.
"I think it's easier for them (players) than it is for us," Ellis related. "When I was playing, you had to (put the last game behind you) because of the routine: practice, meetings, class schedule, study hall. All those things forced you to get moving. It's hard for me now. It takes me three or four days to get over a game as a fan and a broadcaster and all that. I think those kids are resilient, they bounce back, they have their next job to do. ‘How do I figure out how to stop this guy? How do I respond to this offense?'. They have to clear their mind of it. I think it's easier for them then we give them credit for."
Ellis has seen many a Carolina team fail to live up to preseason expectations, realistic or not, in the 19 seasons since he last took a snap for the Gamecocks. He is well aware of the gloom-and-doom mindset amongst so many fans since the Vandy setback, especially evident on internet message boards and sports talk shows. And he cautions those who seem to have already thrown in the towel on this season.
"I certainly know that they have more talent than they've had at most positions in a very, very long time, which is good," Ellis explained. "And I think we have the best coaching staff that we've had in a very long time, which says to me, put those combinations together, you're going to find a way to overcome. What I've always thought was that this season would be about the close games. Can you find a way to make the play late to win? I don't think you'll see poor play like we saw at Vanderbilt much again. I think you'll see some close games. We may lose them to some opponents. But I think you'll see a team getting better throughout the year... there are too many good players for them not to do that."
Ellis' 3,206 yards passing set the USC single-season mark back in 1987, a team that not only featured a high-powered offense, but also a stingy defense that gave up over 20 points only twice in twelve outings. Despite the second half letdown against Vanderbilt, Ellis remains firm in his appraisal of the much-hyped Carolina "D".
"I think they have the players. They have to do what I think is hard for a lot of modern teams, and that is stop the run right at the line of scrimmage. We rarely see plays from defenders now where they're sliding off tackles, making tackles for loss, stuffing guys right at the line of scrimmage. And that's obviously a result of the spread and athletic backs. And they have a lot more reads, plus linemen are getting better. But they have to prove that they can stop the run at the line of scrimmage on more occasions. Not all the time, but they are going to have to do that (better). But other than that, they are pretty dang good. I wouldn't want to play (against) the secondary. I know that."
As for a "gut feeling" about Saturday's game, Ellis replied, "I have no idea, that's being perfectly honest with you. But I don't think that Vanderbilt will linger as much as people think it will linger and affect this game. But I think, you know, it's character time for this team. We have to find out who the leaders are and find out what they'll do. I think they'll respond well. These guys have been in too many big battles not to play well. The difference is, can you play well enough to win in a close one? Do we have enough playmakers? To me, that's what it's all about now. Can you stay close enough to let one of your great players make a play? They need to step up a little bit."
Make no mistake about it though, Ellis is no different than any other Gamecock fan in that the wins feel fantastic, but the losses cut deep. So how does he handle gut-wrenching times such as the Vandy loss, when he must endure the disappointment yet still perform his role in the broadcast booth?
"It's very tough. I don't want to classify it to (how badly) a player feels. I have a lot into it, but I obviously don't have what they put into it, the players and the coaches. But I feel for them. When you travel with them and know how hard they work, that pains you. And then it pains you because you're a fan as well. And then professionally, you just want to have a great game and have a fun time doing that as well.
"So it hurts," Ellis continued. "Seriously, the longer I've been out (of playing), the more that it hurts when we're not playing well. I don't know exactly why that is. I just know that's the way it is."
Ellis paused for a moment and then smiled before sharing one last thought before heading back to work.
"I guess you find out in life that there are few things that you really love that make you truly happy all the time, and Carolina football is really one of those things."
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