Steve Spurrier stormed into the SEC in 1990 and revolutionized the official southern pastime with his Fun-n-Gun offensive and press conference brazenness. The league had to evolve to keep up with the hotshot coach with a propensity to extend fourth quarter leads into embarrassing lopsided wins. That was 25 years ago. After winning a national championship and a short stay in the NFL, The Head Ball Coach resurfaced at South Carolina, where he’s taken the Gamecocks to unprecedented heights, including a SEC East title and the accompanying trip to Atlanta. Love him or hate him, Steve Spurrier’s legacy and impact on college football in undeniable.
Last year, South Carolina seemed out of sorts. Defensively inept, Spurrier uncharacteristically lost fourth quarter leads to Missouri and Kentucky amongst others on the way to 6-6 finish. In the 2014 Wild-Kemp game, the Spurrier of the 90’s tried to throw his way to a win over the Wildcats. While his ego may have been calling pass plays, the common sense move was to continue his ground attack which had been having its way with the UK defense. The final result was a tipped pass and a Bud Dupree pick six to seal the Kentucky victory.
Last Thursday, the Gamecocks won the Battle of the Carolinas. It did so in unimpressive and un-Spurrier like fashion. QB Connor Mitch finished the game 9-22 for 122 yards and a TD. The HBC adapted for Mitch’s early game shakiness by heavily leaning on his opportunistic defense and the Wildcat offensive formation. Four players took shotgun snaps. The Gamecocks rushed for 254 yards and beat the Tar Heels 17-14.
Going back to his comfortable Florida roots, he hired his former defensive coordinator Jon Hoke to solve defensive woes. Hoke’s defense gave up 440 yards but only 14 points. His bend but don’t break scheme worked. UNC contributed to the cause with two end-zone interceptions and late-game, questionable play calling. But, consensus is that Carolina is an improved but still not an upper echelon, SEC defensive team. The new Spurrier has forgone the Fun-n-Gun and now employs the Defense-n-Ground and Pound.
So, what should we expect from South Carolina on Saturday?
– A heavy dose of WR/ATH Pharoh Cooper. The versatile Cooper will play quarterback in the Wildcat, line up at both the slot and outside receiver positions as well as running back on crucial 3rd down situations. A UK concern is Cooper in isolation pass routes against linebackers. Spurrier has thrived on feeding his playmakers the football in space. Expect to see short crossing routes, quick hitters, and other creative ways to exploit Pharoh’s abilities in one on one situations.
– Much like Kentucky, South Carolina will play three running backs: Brandon Wilds, David Williams, and Shon Carson. Carson leads SC in rushing by averaging an astonishing 18.1 yards per carry. Given UK’s ineffective second half rush defense in its opener, a fresh runner will be rotated on a frequent basis. Point blank, South Carolina will try to establish and maintain the run. Very little doubt about that. That is unless the 90’s Spurrier can’t resist the urge to pass as he did in Lexington a year prior.
– With potential running game success, play action passing could present problems. 6’6″ tight end Jerrell Adams is a matchup nightmare. Also, running backs in the flat or spot routes in the middle of the field are Carolina play action favorites. RB Brandon Wilds leads USC in catches with four.
– First downs are critical. For South Carolina to sustain drives, it will emphasize first down success. 3rd down and short situations favor Carolina. And given its opening game 3rd down success, Kentucky cannot afford to play on its defensive heels. It must be the aggressor.
– Defensively, Carolina could go two different ways. With ULL’s second half success in press coverage with an overabundance of blitzing, UK could see the same scheme until it can prove it can make the Gamecocks pay for taking chances. This is likely to happen early. Kentucky will need to timely counter by completing home-run plays to circumvent the blitz.
A second possibility is for SC to play more conservatively and focus on stopping Boom Williams. If this happens, short passing lanes will open. Much of this depends on Patrick Towles’ completion percentage. If he comes out of the gate completing a high percentage of passes, then Carolina could counter with more zone coverage to prevent big plays. If he struggles early, then expect Carolina to stack the box and dare Shannon Dawson to beat them with the deep ball.
– Carolina will try to win the hidden yards game. By having Pharoh Cooper back deep returning punts, the Cats must be cognizant of his threat in the third phase. If the field is sloppy, special teams play will be magnified.
FOR KENTUCKY TO WIN
– Play an error free offensive game. This doesn’t mean a 100% pass completion percentage is in order to win the football game. Turnovers on the road lead to losses. UK cannot afford to give up a shortened field touchdown due to a fumble or interception. Again, if the field is sloppy, the winner of the turnover margin will win the football game.
– Win first down. See above. A plethora of Carolina 3rd and short yard situations will lead to extended drives. The defense has to stay off the field. In order for this to happen, the offense needs to help by sustaining drives. The Cats cannot afford to start multiple series in 2nd-10 situations. Last week, UK converted 5/14 third downs. In the game’s statistical analysis, improving the 35.7 3rd conversion ratio will be the most impactful. That percentage was highly influenced by its ineptness in second half, first down plays.
–More Boom, JoJo, and Mikel. Kentucky finished its opener with only 26 rushing attempts but did gain 178 yards. A 6.8 yards per attempt is commendable. To win, UK must establish its intent to run the football. Between the tackle carries also have to increase. Much of aiming point of the run game will be influenced by Carolina’s defensive scheme. However, the more successful the run game means less time for the defense to be on the field.
– Focus. Broad word, difficult task. When Louisiana had offensive success, it featured an abundance of motion and misdirection. These actions confused inexperienced players which led to defenders forgoing gap responsibility. To play effective defense, UK’s linebackers and defensive ends will be required to simply focus on their assignments and not be tempted by misdirection. This comes through experience and is easier said than done.
– Pitch and Catch. Patrick Towles’ 47.1 completion percentage is the most typed number in the 859. It was what it was. Moving on. If the long ball presents itself, UK still has to take its shots. If Carolina sits in a zone, then a higher completion rate is mandatory.
– Relax and play. The pressure of opening the new Commonwealth Stadium is in the rear view mirror. Seasonal grind is the new routine. Players move forward much quicker than fans and especially this novice media type. Going on the road can at times be easier than playing at home. How this young team reacts on its first road trip of the year will heavily factor in the final score.
Personnel wise, South Carolina will have the best football player on the field in Pharoh Cooper. Josh Forrest and Skai Moore are two of the SEC’s best linebackers. Potentially, Patrick Towles has the advantage at quarterback given that Saturday will be Connor Mitch’s first home start. Kentucky will go as Patrick Towles goes. High expectation brings on higher scrutiny. Not fair, but comes with the territory of being a SEC starting quarterback in a pass heavy offense. This game could very well easily turn into a track meet. A game in the 40’s is not out of the realm of possibility. If Carolina is successful in shortening the game by scoring touchdowns through prolonged drives, the final score could also be in the 20’s.
Weather will factor. Rain is in the forecast. A sloppy turf favors Carolina. As far as projection, this game is highly difficult to predict. Week one to week two improvement is normally the team’s most transitional period. Both teams have much to improve upon. South Carolina has an advantage given it had two additional days of practice.
To say that Kentucky doesn’t have a chance to leave Columbia with a win is overly simplistic. To expect UK to go into Williams-Brice Stadium and beat the Head Ball Coach is a tall but accomplishable task.