Game Preview: Tennessee vs (21) South Carolina
This All Hallow’s Eve matchup gives us two of the great coaching minds of a generation. Will the game become a chess match between a high-powered Spurrier passing game against Monte’s vaunted defense?
To answer this question, let’s think about the major strengths and weaknesses of this season’s South Carolina Gamecocks, and the Vols on the opposite side of those weaknesses.
Thinking About the Gamecock Strengths
PASS DEFENSE (2nd in the SEC; 3rd in the nation).
LB Eric Norwood is the Gamecock’s major star. He leads the team in interceptions and the SEC in sacks. The size of Tennessee’s OL is an issue, especially for pass protection – and USC has a good pass rush and great blitz packages, especially around the edges of any OL. The USC defense will likely try to confuse us. Tennessee will have to mix the run and pass effectively to keep USC off balance. Think Georgia, folks. We turned them into puppies doing just that. It’s now so bad for the puppies that they are still sticking pins into their Lane Kiffin voodoo dolls. Just read any Georgia football blog. Jeez!
Enter Jonathan Crompton. I’ve written more about Jonathan Crompton than anything so far this season. Needless to say, all eyes will remain on him. And we all know how much his performances have improved over the last month.When the Gamecocks played Bama a couple of weeks ago, I noticed the Gamecock defense intent on trying to confuse Tide QB McElroy. Because McElroy reminds me of Crompton (at his worst before the Georgia game), I think South Carolina will try hard to give Crompton something to think about. His track record of good decision-making is only two weeks old. Perhaps USC will even do a lot of stunting, which can be a gamble against a good rushing team like the Vols, though.
PASSING OFFENSE (2nd in the SEC; 47th in the nation — tells you the SEC is a rushing conference).
QB Stephen Garcia is a young man in the process of finding himself as a big-time college player. He ranks in the middle of the pack in SEC passing efficiency, but by all accounts is improving week by week. He’s going to be a good one as long as he successfully stays off the police blotter. He spreads the wealth around, passing to Moe Brown, who is back from a concussion, Tori Gurley, Weslye Saunders, and future gas-pumper Alshon Jeffrey (a cheap shot, I know, but I just had to do it once this week).
I will look for Garcia to avoid the pocket. Garcia was at his best against Bama when he was moving. His favorite motion is faking left and rolling out right. To counter, I expect Tennessee’s 14th rated pass defense in the nation to sit in zone coverage (pretty much the typical Monte) to lull Garcia into thinking he could be comfortable in the pocket, then in the second half throw the kitchen sink at him to see if he caves – USC doesn’t rate very well in QB protection stats. I have a feeling that Eric Berry is gonna like Halloween tricks. Garcia seems to get thrown out of kilter when faced with multiple defensive looks/schemes. Ooooooh, Monte!
Thinking About the Gamecock Weaknesses
RUSHING DEFENSE (8th in the SEC; 70th in the nation). Nearly 150 yards per game allowed.
Since South Carolina’s main weakness is their rushing defense and their main strength is their passing defense, you would think that the Vols will just pound that ol’ rock all night long. But I don’t think the orange air force will remain grounded and go Trick-or-Treating Saturday night. On the contrary, we will pass with the main objective to loosen up the Gamecock defense in order to then pound them on the ground. So, I guess what I just said is that we’re still going to rely on pounding that ol’ rock, just not all night long. If Montario Hardesty gets 100+ yards, the Vols will get treats. If not, it could be a tricky night.
RUSHING OFFENSE (9th in the SEC; 70th in the nation). About 137 yards gained per game.
Kenny Miles has a net 410 yards and 1 TD. Jarvis Giles is next with 276 yds and a touchdown. But if Stephen Garcia and company successfully throw dinks an dunks, our linebacker corps may get softened up enough to where the Gamecock runners might just become effective. Remember, Tennessee’s major successes have been against pro-style offenses such as Georgia and Alabama. But it was trouble playing offenses with lots of motion and deception like Auburn and even Ohio. But here is something to think about - USC’s unproductive offense. How can a team have 431 total yards, no turnovers, and beat Vanderbilt by only 14-10? Gamecock faithful are aggravated with a lack of productivity in the red zone. Last week, USC never even had a chance in the Vandy red zone – the two TDs were passing plays for 35 and 43 yards. All of this points to what the Tennessee defense is adept at – bending, but not breaking.
QB PROTECTION (11th in sacks allowed in the SEC; 99th in the nation).
Tennessee ranks 10th in the SEC and 90th in the nation in sacks. So, maybe Chris Walker or Ben Walker will get maybe one. Since it is Halloween, I smell a couple of Rico McCoy/Eric Berry ballistic missiles into the Gamecock backfield.
Who’s gonna win?
It’s easy to fall into the weekly trap of saying that this week’s game is a huge game. They are all big. But, Saturday’s game is a huge game for both schools. USC needs this one to prevent a start to that dreaded late-season slide with bigger fish coming up. Tennessee needs it to keep from falling to 3-5 and putting a bowl bid in serious jeopardy. We do NOT want to have to go into Lexington to get our 6th win and barely scrape into the bowl season. So the Vols simply have to have this game. It looked like a banana-peel game when I peeked at the schedule in the spring, and it still does.
Back to the original question about the chess match. Yeah, it seems likely that watching Spurrier try to find a key to the lock of Monte’s defensive scheme will be the headline story. But like most Vol games, it’s going to come down to how effectively Tennessee runs against a pretty mediocre run defense. It will be more fun viewing the Monte/Steve show, but keep your eye on how the South Carolina defense tries to stop Montario Hardesty, my Vol MVP so far this season. That could be more interesting, and more important.