These words, immortalized by Admiral Akbar in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, must be echoing throughout the Gamecocks’ locker room this week. As they prepare to travel to Orlando to face Central Florida in Bright House Networks Stadium, South Carolina must be careful not to look ahead to next week’s matchup at home against Kentucky. Fortunately for the Gamecocks, they had a bye week last week, giving them two weeks to ensure that they would not overlook what is turning out to be an impressive Central Florida team.
While this may not have been a team that the national pundits were predicting to be a BCS buster, the Knights have proven that they have all the pieces to turn more than a few heads this year. Following a 34-31 win over Penn State in Happy Valley—a game in which they racked up over 500 yards of offense—UCF garnered 35 votes in the USA Today Poll and 19 votes in the Associated Press in the ‘others receiving votes’ section of the Top 25. This puts them just outside of the Top 25 and makes them the second highest ranked opponent South Carolina has faced this year.
The Knights high-octane offense is led by junior quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles is completing just over 71% of his passes this year and has thrown seven touchdowns compared to just one interception. That one interception came late in the second quarter of the Penn State game and is perhaps the only blemish in Bortles’ 20-of-27, 288-yard, and three-touchdown road performance.
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Bortles is a big target who can be hard to bring down. Just as well, he is mobile enough to evade pressure and make plays outside of the pocket. While still a far cry from Connor Shaw—in terms of mobility—the Gamecock front four should have their hands full trying to contain Bortles and pressure him into making a few errant throws.
Also not to be overlooked is running back and Miami transfer, Storm Johnson. He is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has six touchdowns on the year. His best game so far came not against lesser opponents Akron or Florida International, but on the road at Penn State, where he rushed for 117 and a touchdown on 17 carries. The Gamecock front seven, particularly the young linebacking corps, has struggled at times this year with physical running backs that run well between the tackles. Look for the return in full of weakside linebacker Cedric Cooper, who has been bothered by a dislocated elbow suffered week 1 of the preseason, to bolster this inexperienced group of linebackers for the Gamecocks.
On the injury front, Brandon Helwig of UCFsports reported that offensive tackle Torrian Wilson, who suffered a knee injury against Florida International, will be healthy and the presumed starter at the left tackle spot for Saturday’s noon kickoff. This is good news for Central Florida, as this is the tackle spot that will see the most action against projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Jadaveon Clowney.
Offensively, the Gamecocks are at unprecedented levels right now. The 579 yards of total offense against Vanderbilt is the second-highest single game total since Spurrier’s arrival in 2005. The Gamecocks are averaging 497.7 yards per game—good for 36th in the country—and the highest average through three games in the recorded history of South Carolina football (per Scott Hood, Gamecockcentral).
The key to this offensive explosion has been balance. Connor Shaw is completing 64.9% of his passes and has thrown zero interceptions this year. His lone turnover was an unlucky fumble late in the game against Georgia. While only throwing for 661 yards through the first three games, Shaw’s efficiency and good decision making has been integral to South Carolina’s success offensively.
Elsewhere in the offensive backfield and making a great deal of noise this year is sophomore running back Mike Davis. At 5-foot-9, he is not the biggest back by any means, but he is built like a bowling ball. This toughness and hard-nosed running style—reminiscent of his mentor, Marcus Lattimore—coupled with fantastic quickness and innate ability to make the first defender miss makes him one of the more dangerous backs in the SEC. While he may not be able to carry defenders like his predecessor, he is at least a half a step quicker than Lattimore and has displayed more breakaway speed. He has already broken two 75-yard runs this year and is averaging a staggering 7.6 yards per carry. Look for the Gamecocks to feed Davis early and often in an attempt to wear down the Knights’ front seven.
Also not to be overlooked in the USC backfield is Brandon Wilds. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, the sophomore from Blythewood, SC is the bruiser and a bit harder to bring down. While he has 20 fewer carries than Davis does, he is still averaging a respectable 4.4 yards per carry and has shown the ability to drive the pile on more than one occasion this year.
The key for the Gamecocks offensively is to find a balance on offense and not be afraid to take a few chances downfield. The receiving core has played well this year and Shaq Roland is starting to live up to the high expectations that come with being the No. 1 high school player coming out of South Carolina two years ago. Additionally, the Gamecocks should look to capitalize on the mismatch that their deep tight end corps creates with most every team they will face this year. At 6-5 and 6-6 respectively, Busta Anderson and Jerell Adams are fast, athletic, have soft hands, and have an uncanny knack for catching touchdowns.
After a bye week, South Carolina is as healthy as they have been all season, with the exception of Jadaveon Clowney (foot) and Chaz Sutton (foot), who are nursing nagging injuries. Neither is expected to miss time and both are injuries that may plague them all season long but barring something unforeseen, will not keep them out of any action. Freshman center Cody Waldrop is back in action after missing a few weeks and practiced with the starting offensive line on Wednesday. Also returning and hoping to contribute in a meaningful way for the first time this season is linebacker Cedric Cooper.
If South Carolina can, as they have all year, jump out to a strong start—72 of their 92 points this season have been scored in the 1st half—and take this UCF crowd out of the game early and force the Knights to play catch-up, their depth should be able to carry them to the finish. If Central Florida however, is able to slow the South Carolina attack early and put some points on the board, this game, on the road in a hostile environment, could go down to the final 15 minutes.
Ultimately, SEC level speed, physicality—particularly up front—and depth should give South Carolina the edge in this one, but it will not be easy. If the offense continues to turn the ball over as they did in the win against Vanderbilt, this Central Florida offense with its multiplicity of weapons could capitalize at home. However, if they can protect the ball, maintain balance on offense, and make UCF a one-dimensional team, the Gamecocks’ dynamite front four should give Bortles and the Knights more than they can handle and comfortably lead the Gamecocks to a 3-1 record on the year.