COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA) – After a long week involving significant changes to the program, it’s back to the gridiron for the Gamecocks as they prepare to host Missouri Saturday night.
It has been a trying week for USC to say the least. Following the team’s 59-42 loss to Ole Miss last weekend, Will Muschamp was fired as the team’s head coach. What followed was the announcement that two of the Gamecocks’ top defenders, cornerbacks Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn, were hanging up the cleats for the rest of the season to get ready for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Offensive Coordinator Mike Bobo now assumes interim head coaching duties as he looks to help South Carolina snap a three-game losing streak. And while the offense was the biggest question mark for the team entering the season it’s been the defense that is struggling mightily as of late. They’ve allowed 159 points during the three-game skid, but have a great opportunity to turn things around this week as they take a Tigers unit that’s managing just 22.6 points per game.
For the third straight contest, Collin Hill failed to complete 60% of his passes, something he accomplished in three of his four games. It’s not entirely an indictment on the grad transfer, as the team has dug an early hole while not getting much production from the receiving corps outside of Shi Smith. Nonetheless, Hill is in desperate need of a bounce back performance against Mizzou.
Kevin Harris now has 13 rushing touchdowns this season after shredding the Ole Miss defense for 243 yards and five scores at over nine yards per carry. Deshaun Fenwick has continued to be a great complement in that area as well. But they simply aren’t getting the production in the passing game to match teams score for score. That’s been the big problem outside of the defense.
A bright spot for the unit was that they recorded seven sacks of the Rebels quarterback last Saturday after tallying just a pair of sacks in the previous two games combined. That was a big step in the right direction for the Gamecocks. But they surrendered fewer than 500 total yards of offense in the first four games, and now have given up over 500 total yards in each of the last three. They’ve played some better offenses in that mix, but it’s a stark contrast to the South Carolina defense we saw earlier this fall. Look for that to be the primary point of emphasis going into this week eight showdown.
Of course, without their top DB’s, the Gamecocks will turn their attention to likely several backups to fill the void. Bobo addressed the several changes this team has experienced and how they will adjust as they enter their next game below:
The Tigers have had an up and down season so far. They’ve been competitive in some games while being blown out in others. They have two signature wins against LSU and Kentucky in back to back weeks. Their most recent game was a 41-17 loss to Florida on October 31 and they haven’t played since, due to COVID issues forcing cancellations. So this is certainly a well rested group.
It starts with redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak (#8). Bazelak, a 6’3”, 220 pounder, is a prototypical pocket passer that has been highly accurate in his five games this season. He hasn’t been overly dynamic, but also hasn’t been the primary factor in any of the team’s losses. Through five games he’s thrown four touchdowns to just one interception, and has completed nearly 70% of his passes. He’s efficient and effective, and can move well in the pocket. But if you can push the pocket routinely, there’s a good chance at bringing him down or at least throwing off the timing as he’s not much of an escape artist.
Senior running back Larry Rountree (#34) is the Tigers’ primary rusher. He’s been a stead contributor this season, averaging over four yards per carry to the tune of 432 yards and four touchdowns. He’s an effective runner in between the tackles, but isn’t much of a factor in the passing game. That role belongs more to junior Tyler Badie (#1). Badie, a shiftier and quicker back, has added 119 yards on the ground while also logging nine receptions for 146 yards and two scores through the air. He’s a big time threat coming out of the backfield.
Jalen Knox (#9) has been Bazelak’s top target in the passing game this season. Knox, who often lines up in the slot, has caught 22 passes for 232 yards this season, leading the team in both categories. Damon Hazleton Jr. (#7) and Keke Chism (#6) round out the other top threats at wideout. Hazleton and Chism are both bigger targets on the outside at 6’3” and 6’4”, respectively.
On defense it really starts with their linebacker Nick Bolton (#32). The junior will linebacker has a knack for flying around the field and making plays whether it be behind the line of scrimmage or out in the open field. He leads the team with 53 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and has added a sack, three pass deflections and one fumble recovery. He’s simply a playmaker.
In their 4-2-5 scheme safeties are highlighted quite often. USC will have to account for sophomore free safety Martez Manuel (#3) and Joshuah Bledsoe (#1). Both have made some significant plays on the back end and are very effective in run defense as well.
Overall, though, this unit has been a disappointment after being one of the better SEC defenses in 2019. They have only four takeaways in 2020. And while they’re holding opposing quarterbacks to fewer than a 60% completion rate they have managed just one interception, and are still giving up nearly four hundred total yards per game. They’ve allowed nine rushing touchdowns as well.
This matchup comes at the perfect time for a wounded Gamecocks squad. Although they’ll miss some key players and will be entering the game with a new head coach, they stack up well against the Tigers.
Kevin Hill should be able to run freely on this defense, while Hill should be able to settle in and engineer long scoring drives. They have to avoid turnovers, though. And considering Mizzou has been underwhelming in that department this season, the Gamecocks have a good chance at putting together a turnover-free outing. Furthermore, the defensive line needs to get pressure on the young Missouri quarterback. This will both minimize his effectiveness at pushing the ball downfield, but will also aid their reserve defensive backs.
It’s been a bumpy road. But this Saturday South Carolina can begin to heal, and put themselves on a positive trajectory.