By RALPH MANCINI - CFI SENIOR WRITER
The Steve Spurrier-led Gamecocks head into Gainesville this week with upset on their minds. South Carolina is one of the hottest teams around coming off four victories in their last five SEC games. This will be a huge test for the Gators, who have national-title aspirations. Staving off their bowl-hungry rival will be no small feat despite the fact that the Gamecocks haven’t won in the Swamp in their previous 11 tries.
When the ‘Cocks Have the Ball
STEVE SPURRIER IS four years into his tenure at USC but has yet to build that powerhouse offense everyone expected from him. In fact, after ranking 20th overall in 2006, this unit has been going backwards, ranking 77th last season and 86th this year. One of the primary reasons for this is the lack of an established field general – the two-headed monster of Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia has failed to add any consistency to South Carolina’s passing attack. The former is an error-prone game manager who can put some mustard behind some of his throws while Garcia, the more talented and athletic of the two, struggles with reading defenses. The two quarterbacks are both guilty of staring down their receiving targets at times. Those targets are often 6’0” senior Kenny McKinley and standout tight end Jared Cook. McKinley has been hindered by a hamstring injury that cost him three games this year, but when healthy, he is an outstanding route-runner who fluidly comes in and out of his cuts with excellent burst. The 6’ 5”, 240-pound Cook, on the other hand, is a converted wide out with 4.5 speed and amazing leaping ability. This former basketball player is a match-up nightmare and leads his team with 33 receptions for 542 yards. Running back Mike Davis’ 3.5 yards-per-carry have been a major disappointment. He’s been sluggish this year and has failed to top 100 yards since this first week of the season, although much of that can be attributed to a deficiency of large bodies along the interior of the offensive line. Injuries have also played a role with left guard Lemuel Jeanpierre, knocked out for the season with a knee injury suffered during the Tennessee game. The Gamecocks other starting guard, Heath Batchelor, was suspended indefinitely after three games. Current guards, Hutch Eckerson and Terrence Campbell, are both under 300 pounds.
LED BY THEIR imposing middle linebacker, Brandon Spikes, Florida boasts a much-improved defense with a revamped secondary and interior defensive line. But it all starts with Spikes. Whether he’s crushing ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage or making plays in pass coverage, the 6’3’, 245-pound ring leader always seems to be in the right position to make a play. The Gators will look to stay aggressive by dialing up a variety of blitzes. Outside linebacker A.J. Jones will be one of those who’ll be featured in blitz packages thanks to his good feet and ability to elude blockers. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap is another player South Carolina’s quarterbacks need to look out for. With five sacks under his belt, the freakish 6’ 7”, 290-pound lineman is blessed with extraordinary closing speed off the edge and a pair of long arms that give him the upper hand when disengaging from blockers. Fellow end, Jermaine Cunningham, is Dunlap’s partner in crime when it comes to wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield. Cunnigham’s lethal first step often makes him too hot to handle for opposing offensive lines. Strong safety Ahmad Black is masterful at reading quarterbacks and has five interceptions so far, while free safety Major Wright is hard-hitting and tenacious. Freshman Janoris Jenkins has tremendous anticipatory skills and plays with a confidence that borders on cockiness. The first-year defensive back has made an immediate impact by playing a big role in Florida’s win over Tennessee and recorded his first sack versus LSU.
When the Gators Have the Ball
THE VARIETY OF looks Florida’s offense can throw at you on a weekly basis is quite daunting. Quarterback Tim Tebow is the engine of Urban Meyer’s offense with the many ways he can penetrate a defense. The Heisman Trophy winner can frustrate the opposition by running through or around defenders, as well as by unleashing his powerful arm on downfield throws — he’s nearly unstoppable when he’s on his game. Meyer will also throw a change-up every now and then by lining Tebow up at wide receiver and letting jack-of-all-trades wide out Percy Harvin take a few snaps to keep opponents off balance. Harvin has the speed and elusiveness to make defenders miss from a number of different positions. Tag-team partner Louis Murphy is bigger than his 5’ 11” counterpart and nearly matches his speed on both downfield plays and shorter gadget routes. Red-shirt freshman Deonte Thompson has also shown signs of becoming a premier playmaker this season. His acceleration and overall competitiveness compensate for his occasional drops. How Gator receivers match up with South Carolina’s fourth-ranked pass defense should be fun to watch. Florida’s hodgepodge of weapons at running back is also quite impressive with Emmanuel Moody, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps all averaging over six yards per tote. Rainey is a shifty back who baffles would-be tacklers with his ability to start and stop on a dime. He’ll often use his balance to break free on long runs. Demps is a pure speed merchant that defenses always have to account for. Bristol, Connecticut native Aaron Hernandez offers enough size to outmuscle linebackers at tight end with the quickness and agility to give most safeties a hard time. Phil Trautwein is a resident Jersey boy who’s been known to make several pancake blocks in the running game.
SOUTH CAROLINA’S BIGGEST strength lies in its shutdown defense. In addition, to the Gamecocks leading the SEC in total defense, this ultra-fast and hard-hitting unit has yet to allow any of their opponents to score more than 24 points. Teams usually don’t run the ball against this defense either as Spurrier’s bunch has prevented all backs from averaging four yards per carry. SC’s linebackers play an integral role in that regard. Junior Eric Norwood, in particular, is a ferocious pass rusher who can line up at both inside and outside linebacker. Last year’s All-SEC pick has been unstoppable at times this year, displaying uncommon athleticism for a man who tips the scales at 253 pounds. Norwood has five sacks in his last two games. Jasper Brinkley is a 269-pound roadblock at middle linebacker, who often prevents blockers from gaining any ground for their running backs. While the king-sized run stuffer delivers some devastating blows to ball carriers, his lack of sideline-to-sideline range may be a problem in pursuing Tebow and company. Strong safety Emanuel Cook is also a force against the run. He not only leads the team in tackles, but truly has a nose for the football and frequently scoops up fumbles as a result. This playmaking junior is also good at putting the clamps on opposing tight ends in coverage. Ladi Ajiboye is the Gamecocks’ best lineman with his quick first step and his ability to knife through offensive lines and harass quarterbacks. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was a preseason first-team All- SEC pick, who makes his presence felt with his aggressive and physical style of play.
WHILE SOUTH CAROLINA may somewhat contain the Gators’ high-octane arsenal, quarterback Tim Tebow will find ways to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers, who can outrun just about any defense. The fact that the Gamecocks are a turnover-prone squad also works against them versus a gifted front seven that will capitalize on their mistakes. SC’s quarterbacks lead the conference in interceptions with 17.
Prediction: Florida 31, South Carolina 19
Photo Credit: SEC Sports Media
Thursday, November 13, 2008
By RALPH MANCINI - CFI SENIOR WRITER