South Carolina (2-2, 0-2 in the SEC) looked alive for the first time in a while in the second half of last week’s game against UCF. Trailing 14-8 at the half, head ball coach Steve Spurrier was happy to see a couple of his veterans get angry.
The Gamecocks knew they needed to step up their play after the break, and they did, scoring 23 unanswered points and limiting the Knights to just 112 yards.
Saturday, the Gamecocks will travel to Missouri to face off in “The Battle of the Columbias” against the Tigers.
Missouri has underperformed for much of the season, but still boasts a 3-1 record. The Tigers are coming off a 21-13 loss to Kentucky last week after fans booed the team in a 9-6 win over UCONN the week before.
Tuesday, Missouri starting quarterback Maty Mauk and backup offensive tackle Malik Cuellar were suspended for “disciplinary reasons.” Add to the mix the fact that the Gamecocks and Tigers have played instant classics the past two seasons, and there are nearly too many storylines to count.
However, despite the intrigue surrounding the circumstances of Saturday’s contest, the game itself still matters. Here are three keys to victory for the Gamecocks.
1. Win in the Trenches
Last week, the Gamecock offensive line kept freshman quarterback Lorenzo Nunez safe against the Knights. The line gave up just one sack — a failed blitz pickup by redshirt sophomore running back David Williams.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Gamecocks only sacked UFC quarterback Bo Schneider twice, but limited the Knights to just 26 yards on the ground.
Missouri ranks seventh in total defense, giving up just 255 yards per game, best in the SEC. Senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers gets much of the credit, tallying 52 tackles in four games, but the Tiger defensive line is ferocious.
Missouri has registered eight sacks this season and gave up just 3.2 yards per carry against a capable Kentucky running game.
The Gamecocks need to control the line-of-scrimmage both on offense and defense. If the defense can get pressure on quarterback Drew Lock in his first career start, the Gamecocks can rattle the freshman and steal a game on the road.
2. Let Lorenzo be Lorenzo
Last week, Nunez ran the ball 18 times in his first career start. After the game, Spurrier said he likes Nunez running that often. Though the freshman is still quite inexperienced, Nunez is a playmaker.
Spurrier, along with fellow play callers G.A. Mangus and Shawn Elliott, should let Nunez loose. The freshman has proven that he has both the running and throwing ability to beat a capable defense.
While the Tigers’ seventh-ranked squad poses a daunting threat, the coaching staff needs to be willing to allow Nunez to play to his full potential. If that means letting the 6-foot-3 Georgia native run 18 times, so be it. Nunez has the ability to beat Missouri’s defense, if the coaches let him.
Nunez may make a few mistakes, but his playmaking potential far outweighs the benefits of playing it safe. The Gamecock play callers succeeded last week and need to continue the same winning formula against the Tigers.
It's time to release the Nunez; it’s his team now.
3. Get creative in the run game
With fifth-year senior Brandon Wilds likely out for the second-consecutive week, the Gamecocks will have to do a better job getting their deep backfield going.
South Carolina ran for 216 yards against the Knights, but the tailbacks combined for just 67 yards on 21 carries. If the traditional running game struggles early against the stout Missouri defense, Elliott, Mangus and Spurrier will have to get creative.
While Nunez scrambled a few times last week, the bulk of his carries and yardage came from designed quarterback runs. The play callers need to set the tone early with misdirections, options and other nontraditional running plays to put the Tigers on their heels. If Missouri has to load the box, passing lanes will open up for Nunez.
However, it won’t happen unless the Gamecocks mix up their ground game.