When the South Carolina Gamecocks (7-2) welcome the Florida Gators (4-5) to Williams-Brice on Saturday, for their crucial 7 p.m. matchup on ESPN 2, the Gamecocks will be in for a fight. Florida will be fighting the remainder of this season for bowl eligibility, while the Gamecocks can still win the East if things go their way, but first, they need to take care of the Gators on Saturday.
This is a South Carolina football team that, though they are on pace to shatter the record for offensive production in a season, has struggled of late and is coming off a game against Mississippi State in which they recorded a season-low 307 yards.
Recent weeks have also seen Connor Shaw hobbled with injury. After a bye week however, Shaw as well as Davis (shoulder, ribs) and Jadeveon Clowney have had time to nurse a few nagging injuries. After missing the Tennessee game, Ronald Patrick came back for the Missouri game but is just now getting close to 100%. Backup running back Brandon Wilds, who dressed last week, is likely to see his first action since suffering a sprained elbow against UCF, and Cody Waldrop, who has dealt with ankle and foot injuries all season, could see a return to action.
This entire Florida team has been ravaged by injury on both sides of the ball. Defensively however, they remain atop the SEC, fifth in the country in total defense and only allow 19 points per game, despite losing future NFL star defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Currently on a four-game losing streak, the Gators have had a little trouble stopping the run recently as injuries begin to mount, and have given up at least 126 yards on the ground in each of the last four weeks, including over 200 to Missouri.
The Gators’ secondary has been fantastic all year, only allowing five passing touchdowns on the season and holding opposing quarterbacks to a 49% completion rating (per Gamecockcentral). Wide receiver coach Steve Spurrier Jr. admits that the outside receivers will have their work cut out for them against two talented cover corners, Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, both of whom are taller than 6-feet.
For a South Carolina football team that has a physical offensive line and the league’s top rusher, the emphasis on Saturday should be at running between the tackles and controlling the line of scrimmage. Florida’s offense has been nothing short of dreadful at times this year and suffering injuries to starting quarterbacks could be to blame; however, the Gamecock defense should put the offense in a position to run the ball and control the clock. The Gamecocks should, if they can avoid it, going to the air too often. The return of Brandon Wilds, who is a bigger, more physical back than Davis, should be integral to the success of the Gamecock offense.
Defensively, Lorenzo Ward’s unit has continued to get better each game this year, and in the last two games have held an explosive Missouri offense to 17 regulation points and forced five turnovers from a Mississippi State team that only turned the ball over six times up to that point in the season. Starting quarterback Jeff Driskel was no Danny Wuerffel, and his injury early in the season was not exactly detrimental to the offense. His replacement, Tyler Murphy, filled in as well as he could with a banged up offensive line and a depleted running back corps, but may have to sit out this weekend with an injury to his throwing shoulder suffered last week against Vanderbilt.
Florida is 113th in the country in total yards, averaging 335.7 yards per game. The key defensively for South Carolina will be controlling the line of scrimmage, and shutting down Junior Mack Brown to put the game in the hands of freshman Skyler Mornhinweg.
As is apparent after last year’s debacle however, good defense is not always enough. The Gamecock defense held Florida to 183 total yards and still gave up 44 points. As is the key with every game, particularly in the Southeastern conference, the Gamecocks will have to protect the football. Barring a major collapse of the offense, South Carolina should be able to score enough points at home to put away an unimpressive Florida team.
Look for the Gamecocks to feed Davis and Wilds early and set up the play action for Shaw. If South Carolina can jump out to an early lead and force Florida to throw the ball on the road with a freshman against Jadeveon Clowney and company against a secondary that is improving weekly, this could be a comfortable Gamecock victory.
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