COLUMBIA, S.C. (WSPA) – The Gamecocks hit the road this week as they get ready to take on the Florida Gators in Gainesville on Saturday.
South Carolina is 0-1 following a 31-27 loss to No. 16 Tennessee in their season opener at Williams-Brice Stadium. Florida is 1-0 after defeating Mississippi on the road, 51-35.
The Gamecocks showed plenty of promise in their opener versus the Volunteers. And if not for a special teams blunder with under two minutes to go, they may have been able to put a game-winning drive together. But as they say the past is the past.
Collin Hill, a Dorman grad and transfer from Colorado State, looked pretty good in his first start for the Gamecocks. Hill was 25 of 39 (64%) for 290 yards, throwing one touchdown and one interception in the loss. The interception was costly as it was returned for a touchdown to give Tennessee a 14-7 lead in the first quarter. But Hill buttoned up for much of the remainder of the game, leading the Gamecocks to scores on four of their six second-half drives.
It was apparent that Hill has formed a chemistry with top wideout Shi Smith as Smith recorded ten catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. Five other Gamecocks recorded catches in the game, with Xavier Legette being second on the team with a 4-61 line.
South Carolina struggled to get going on the ground with much consistency. Kevin Harris led the way with 55 yards on 13 carries as well as a three yard score on the team’s opening drive. Deshaun Fenwick provided some big plays on his six carries, but they weren’t often able to establish a rhythm on the ground as they routinely followed up a first-down run with a pass. They’ll need more efficiency in that area against the Gators.
One of the glaring shortcomings from South Carolina was the play of the offensive line. The Tennessee front got after Collin Hill all night long, racking up four sacks and an additional three pressures. Many of those came in important situations. A better run game should help stymie pressures moving forward, but it won’t be getting easier with the Gators on the horizon.
Defensively, it was almost the opposite for South Carolina. They shut down Jarrett Guarantano in the first half, surrendering just one scoring drive through the first two quarters. But the Vols found success on several drives in the second half as they wore down the Gamecocks late in the game. The Gamecocks secondary, a clear strength of the team coming in, surrendered some big plays through the air, and Israel Mukuamu was even sidelined at one point. The SC defensive backs will have an opportunity this week to right the ship after a less than stellar performance. Kingsley Enagbare was the star on defense for the Gamecocks, recording both of the team’s sacks, but outside of him, and solid tackling by Ernest Jones, there was much left to be desired.
The Gators lived up to their preseason ranking last week in their opener against Ole Miss. It all starts and ends with senior quarterback Kyle Trask (#11). Trask had a career outing against the Rebels, throwing for 416 yards, six touchdowns and completing over 70% of his passes. His primary receiver, tight end Kyle Pitts (#84), also exploded for an eight catch, 170 yard outing including a whopping four touchdowns. Trask and Pitts were in sync the entire game, and Pitts showed why he’s one of the best tight ends in college football. The 6’6”, 240 pound junior has a rare blend of size and speed that makes it difficult for opposing defenses to cover. He’s too big for defensive backs, and too fast for linebackers. This will be the matchup to look for in pretty much every game they play this season.
Florida scored touchdowns on four of their final five drives in the first half and then followed that up by scoring on every drive of the second half, resulting in the 51-35 win.
While no player had rushing attempts in the double digits, the Gators were impressively efficient in the ground game. They had six different players carry the ball for a team average of 6.8 yards per carry. They effectively gashed the Ole Miss for big gains on the ground, opening up more big play opportunities in the passing game. Malik Davis (#20) and Dameon Pierce (#27) are the primary running backs; each had six yard per carry or better. But the team uses plenty of other options in the ground game. Receiver Kadarius Toney (#1) contributes some big plays rushing the football (he had a 50-yard run against Mississippi), and quarterback Emory Jones (#5) is used as a dual-threat weapon in Dan Mullen’s system. They’ll come at you a lot of different ways, keeping defenses on their toes.
On defense, five-star defensive end Brenton Cox Jr. looked every bit the part in his first game with the Gators. Cox lit up the backfield to the tune of 2.5 tackles for loss as well as a sack. He added eight tackles and created pressure consistently. Junior linebacker Ventrell Miller is a tackling machine, and his performance against the Rebels earned him SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Their secondary, despite having quite a bit of experience, was shoddy in the opener. They gave up 443 yards through the air, and were vulnerable to the slot. While good against the run, these defensive backs can be beaten downfield.
Florida presents several challenges on offense. The South Carolina defensive line will have to be extremely disciplined this week to avoid getting gauged by Mullen’s multiple-rush attack. At the same time, they will need to generate consistent pressure on Trask or he can make you pay early on. There’s little room for error in this one.
The Gamecocks will need to find a way to minimize the impact of Kyle Pitts, perhaps jamming off the line to re-route and create some opportunities for the rushers to get home. They may utilize brackets as well to keep him in check.
As mentioned, Florida’s secondary can be vulnerable. SC will need another big game from Shi Smith, but as Will Muschamp pointed out, they’ll need some other guys in the receiving corps to step. And on top of that, a healthy running game will be Collin Hill’s best friend. If they can open up play action opportunities they’ll get a few shots downfield in this one. And while the screens, a Bobo staple, weren’t very effective last week against Tennessee, they might find more success against the Gators and their aggressive approach.
Field position will play a big role in this game. South Carolina was negatively impacted by being faced with long drives consistently against Tennessee. If they’re faced with that again against the No. 5 Gators, they’ll be in for a very long afternoon. An obvious component to that is the special teams, and they can’t afford another blunder like they had in the opener.
Fast starts are always important, but South Carolina can’t afford to fall behind early to this Florida group. Another methodical opening drive will go a long way in giving the Gamecocks some necessary cushion and momentum.