Tiger logos litter the list of the SEC’s defensive leaders. Spots that were once held by South Carolina’s elite have been ransacked by the new kids on the block.
Missouri’s redshirt junior defensive lineman Shane Ray leads the conference in sacks, while redshirt sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer is the conference’s leading tackler.
And nearly two and a half years after leaving the Big 12, the Tigers have proven to fit the bill of a prototypical SEC defense.
“They’re very similar [to last year]. Very aggressive, very fast, excellent-conditioned guys,” head coach Steve Spurrier said of Missouri’s defense. “They don’t miss many tackles. They generally don’t beat themselves. If you’re going to beat them, you’re going to have to execute some plays and mix it up.”
Missouri has perhaps the most formidable and complete front seven the Gamecocks have seen this season, despite losing SEC co-defensive player of the year Michael Sam to this year’s draft.
The team has three players with more than one sack. South Carolina has none. How’s that for role reversal?
The silver lining is how good the Gamecocks have been at protecting redshirt senior Dylan Thompson. South Carolina’s offensive line has given up only five sacks all season, which is nine less than the 14 the Tigers have accumulated.
“They’ve got a great team,” Thompson said. “They’re always going to have a good pass rush. [They’re] just really solid defensively. They know their assignments and they play well together.”
However, Missouri’s Achilles’ heel this season has been the inability to prevent the big play on the ground. A big play is defined as a run that results in 15 or more yards, and Missouri has given up 10 of these.
Three came last week against Indiana — a 16-yard run, 49-yard run and 17-yard run — with the two longest runs taking place during the final 17 minutes of the game, a point in the game when the Gamecocks have thrived at pounding the ball.
Missouri has allowed runs like these at an alarming rate this season — once every 15.3 plays. The only teams allowing big plays at a higher frequency than the Tigers are South Carolina and Arkansas, which allow big plays every 14.2 and 10.8 plays, respectively.
The Gamecocks’ running game coming into the season was perceived by many as the team’s bread and butter. So far, the team owns two running backs who have touched the ball at least 40 times, in what has become a very two-pronged run game.
South Carolina has been able to run the ball successfully this season with junior running backs Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds averaging 4.6 and 5.2 yards per carry, respectively.
But it's been Thompson and the passing game that seemingly dictates the pace of the offense. The first-year starter is currently on pace to log 3,420 passing yards before the end of the regular season.
Thompson received the start at Missouri last season, but was pulled in favor of Connor Shaw, who led the Gamecocks to a 27-24 overtime victory.
“He wasn’t terrible last year, just nothing good was happening,” Spurrier said.
Thompson completed 15 passes for 222 yards but failed to put any points on the board.
With a handful of starts under his belt since last year’s game, Thompson will look to avenge last season’s near-disaster but more importantly, keep South Carolina afloat in the race for the SEC East.
“Week one didn’t go how we wanted obviously, but we have three wins since then,” Thompson said. “That’s what we want to do — we want to win games and in conference, especially. We’ve got another chance to do that this weekend, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”