A week that focused on heads (D.J. Swearinger) and shoulders (Connor Shaw) will soon turn to game day, as #7 South Carolina faces Missouri at Williams-Brice Stadium (3:30 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network).
Consecutive games of 40+ points and 500+ yards haven't pacified the Gamecocks. Far from it, in fact. Carolina knows it needs a much better offensive performance to beat a Missouri team (2-1, 0-1 SEC) in search of its first conference win, and its first road win over a Top 10 opponent since 1981.
The margin for error has shrunk. The margin for victory has likely shrunk with it. Can the result stay the same?
Pre-snap reads before the inaugural "Battle of Columbia" (apologies to the denizens of the 19 other U.S. towns named Columbia):
Trench Warfare: The focus in Missouri this week has also hinged -- no pun intended - on the right shoulder of a starting quarterback. All signs point to Missouri getting back junior James Franklin, a talented dual-threat who missed the Arizona State game with an inflamed bursa sac. Head coach Gary Pinkel admitted his play calling against ASU was more conservative with backup Corbin Berkstresser under center. In particular, Pinkel wants to create more touches for wideout Dorial Green-Beckham, Rivals.com's #1-ranked high school player in the Class of 2012, who only caught one pass last week.
But even with Franklin returning, does Missouri have the health up front to allow Pinkel to open his playbook? An astonishing 5 of Missouri's top 10 offensive linemen have been injured since August. Georgia unleashed 9 quarterback hurries and 7 tackles for loss in Missouri's SEC opener; even in defeat, Arizona State repeatedly dished out punishment to Berkstresser. South Carolina's defensive front may be better than both.
Missouri quarterback James Franklin (left)
It will be fascinating to see how Missouri manages South Carolina's pressure. Will the Tigers use more screen passes, play-action fakes, and misdirections to dodge the Gamecocks' pass rush? Will they utilize more runs to set up shots downfield (the Tigers had 116 rushes of 10+ yards last year, the 5th most in the Football Bowl Subdivision)? Or will they take their chances anyway, and hope to keep the Clowneys, Taylors, Quarleses, and Jerideaus at bay?
Ain't That A Mitch: Missouri may be thin at offensive line, but they're stacked at Mitch Halls. The Tigers have not one, but two redshirt freshman offensive linemen named Mitch Hall. One stands 6'6," 315 pounds, and is sitting out after transferring from Ole Miss. The other stands 6'1," 275 pounds, and is listed as Missouri's backup long snapper.
Notable Quotable: Missouri's Max Copeland, on the Tigers' SEC opener vs. Georgia (a 41-20 loss): "It's like a first date, and she ordered the lobster."
Tailor-Made? Despite the arcade-game offensive numbers, Marcus Lattimore was largely a spectator against East Carolina and UAB. His 25 combined carries were his fewest in back-to-back regular season games, and his 40 and 85 rushing yards were pedestrian by Lattimore standards. He'll look to get going against a Missouri defense that ranks 4th in the SEC in rushing defense (94.7 ypg).
Marcus Lattimore faces the SEC's 4th-ranked rushing defense Saturday.
To open lanes for Lattimore, the Gamecocks will have to contend with powerful defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who posted a monster stat line against Arizona State (9 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and 0.5 sacks). The Tigers routinely move Richardson around, using him in stand-up situations and rushing him from multiple angles. Lattimore's bruising, between-the-tackles running will get a test.
Leveling The Field: It seems like a forbidding combination for the field position game. Missouri comes in with the nation's 5th-best turnover margin (+6). They also feature talented punt returner Marcus Murphy, who has a pair of runbacks for touchdowns and leads the SEC in return average (19.2 ypr).
The Gamecocks, however, may have an antidote. Despite allowing 19 drives to cross midfield, the Carolina defense has given up 3.6 yards per play inside its own territory.
Opponents in Carolina Territory
Plays: 87 Yards: 314 Yards Per Play: 3.6 Scores: 5 (4 FG, 1 TD) Turnovers: 4 (2 INT, 2 FR) Turnovers on Downs: 5 Missed FG's: 2 Punts: 3
Yards Per Play: 3.6
Scores: 5 (4 FG, 1 TD)
Turnovers: 4 (2 INT, 2 FR)
Turnovers on Downs: 5
Missed FG's: 2
That's an incredible rate for a team that's supposedly on its heels. If field position proves unkind to the Gamecocks, can they continue to put up spirited defensive stands?
Still Waiting.... With the new kickoff rules in college football, most people agreed they'd see fewer returns in 2012.
Through three games, South Carolina is the only team in the nation without a kickoff return. The wait must be excruciating for sophomore Bruce Ellington, who broke off a kick return for a touchdown in one of Carolina's preseason scrimmages. The outlook looks better for Saturday: Missouri's Trey Barrow and Andrew Baggett have combined for a league-low 3 touchbacks. If the Tigers suddenly get a benevolent tailwind, don't be shocked, either.
Bruce Ellington (left) would prefer to run instead of kneel down.
And Finally... Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott may have called his players many names after what he termed "a pitiful performance" against UAB. But few may compare to the long-buried family nickname of Gamecock guard A.J. Cann.
Before he turned into a hulking, 309-pound interior lineman, Cann had a far less intimidating sobriquet growing up in Bamberg, S.C.: "Ganky." Cann says his Grandma blessed him with the name as a baby, though he's unclear why.
Alas, "Ganky" fizzled out by the time Cann was a toddler. Judging by his size, it's doubtful any kid would've given him grief.
Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our pre-game coverage starts at 12:30 p.m. on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. See you Saturday. -AD--