Spurrier previews clash with Kentucky

Three-hundred seventy three days ago this Saturday, the Gamecocks took on Kentucky at Williams-Brice Stadium. That nationally-televised primetime game featured two teams ranked in the Top 11 in the nation, BCS implications, and a Heisman-hopeful who was derailed by a defensive performance for the ages. This year, the matchup features, well, none of that, and will be aired on regional television.


So what happened over the last year to change things? First of all, both teams encountered late season swoons that sapped some of the momentum that could have carried over to this season. South Carolina climbed to sixth in the country in the weeks following the win, but lost five straight to finish the season. Kentucky fared better, but still had a losing record in the second half of the season, going 3-4 after the loss to Carolina, including a bowl win. Both programs are generally considered to be on the rise, but neither is at the level where it can brush aside a bad loss or player departure.

"We had our chances in a couple games, and we won a couple we could have lost. We're not quite there yet, no question about that, and don't profess to be there yet," Steve Spurrier said at his Tuesday press conference. "‘There' is at the top of the division. Statistically we're better than we've been, especially on defense. But we lost two close games, and we're not going to have a big year until we win those."

More important than the slow finish, Kentucky lost most of last year's dynamic offense to graduation. Quarterback Andre Woodson was touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, and he had running back Rafael Little and receivers Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, and Steve Johnson. Those names are scattered throughout the Wildcat record books, but all have moved on. Although they are currently unranked, the Wildcats are 4-1 and did not have the dramatic falloff many predicted. That, says Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, is a testament to how Rich Brooks has improved the overall depth and quality at Kentucky.

"Kentucky is a very good team," he said. "Rich Brooks and his staff have really improved the quality of all the athletes up there. Kentucky ten years ago was considered maybe a slow team, they just didn't have a lot of fast, speedy players, but now they're like most all the SEC teams. They've got tremendous team speed."

If Kentucky's success this season is a surprise, then an even bigger surprise is how they have maintained their success. Gone is the offensive juggernaut that won shootouts, and in its place is a stifling defense. The Wildcats opened the year by shutting out Louisville (the Cardinals scored two points on a safety), and they currently lead the nation in scoring defense (7.8 points per game) and red zone defense. Kentucky is also third in pass defense (144.4 yards per game) and 12th in total defense (259.4 yards per game).

"They've got a good pass rush and excellent team speed," marveled Spurrier. "They play a lot of man to man, although when they play us they usually mix it up. They generally haven't blitzed a whole bunch because their front four gets plenty of pressure."

The Gamecocks are no slouch on defense either. Carolina had the nation's top ranked defense before giving up 361 yards of offense to Ole Miss. Now, the Gamecocks are ranked sixth in total defense (244.7 yards per game), second in pass defense (128.0 yards per game), and 16th in scoring defense (14.7 points per game). Throw in an inconsistent offense that finally showed signs of breaking out against Ole Miss, and everything points to a very low scoring affair.

"It's looked ugly," Spurrier said of his offense in the first half of the season. "I'm just thankful it's not as ugly as some of these other schools. There's a lot of ugly offenses out there. We can be a lot better offensively, and that's what we need to work on."


Notes:

- Steve Spurrier has never lost to Kentucky. He is 15-0 against the Wildcats. Carolina has won the last eight games in the series, and Kentucky coach Rich Brooks has never beaten the Gamecocks or Spurrier, going 0-5 against Carolina.

- Kentucky opened its schedule against four non-conference teams, going 4-0. The Wildcats lost their conference opener to Alabama by a score of 17-14 on the same day Carolina picked up its first conference win. However, the Gamecocks had already played two SEC games, both losses.

- Last year's eighth ranked Kentucky team is tied (with Clemson, who lost 20-7 in 1987, and West Virginia, who lost 20-14 in 1953) for the third highest ranked team to ever lose to the Gamecocks. The only two higher ranked teams the Gamecocks have beaten are third-ranked North Carolina (31-13 in 1981) and sixth-ranked Georgia (23-10 in 1988).

- Although Chris Smelley is the unquestioned starter, Spurrier said Stephen Garcia could be used as a situational player. He said that meant Garcia could be asked to throw certain passes, not just run the ball.


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