Lou Holtz was once asked if Fayetteville was the end of the world. “No”, he responded “but you can see it from here”. This coming from a man who coached at the University of Arkansas for seven years, and you will not hear any objections from the Gamecock faithful.
When the South Carolina Gamecocks (4-1) take on the Arkansas Razorbacks (3-3) this Saturday (October 12, SEC TV) at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, they will have more than their hands full. In his first year as head coach, former Wisconsin man Bret Bielema has seemingly begun a significant turn-around for a program that was a dumpster fire last year, under interim coach John L. Smith.
Although they are 3-3 (0-2 in the conference), this is an Arkansas team that is returning to their power running game of old and doing it well, averaging 216 yards on the ground per game—good for 24th in the country. The quarterback play however, has not been so prolific. Sophomore Brandon Allen is completing fewer than 50% of his passes, and has a 2-1 touchdown-interception ratio—eight touchdowns to four interceptions.
Arkansas has won the games that they were supposed to—against Southern Mississippi, Louisiana Lafayette, and Samford—and their losses have been to two top 20 SEC teams in Florida and Texas A&M, and Rutgers on the road. Based on that track record, a No. 14 South Carolina should be able to pull out a win on the road. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, it will not be that easy.
Since joining the SEC in 1992, South Carolina is an abysmal 2-8 in Fayetteville, and until the Southeastern Conference added Missouri, it was the Gamecocks’ longest road trip. On top of that, this is a north-south running Arkansas team, which will challenge the young and thus far, underachieving linebacking corps of South Carolina. To win this game, against a smash mouth Razorbacks team, they will have to do something that they have struggled with all year, shut down a good physical running back.
Arkansas utilizes a two-back set, led by freshman Alex Collins who has carried the ball 113 times for 651 yards (an average of 5.8 yards per carry) and Jonathan who has 503 yards on 81 carries. If the Gamecocks find themselves in a close game, late, this dynamic rushing duo, couple with the South Carolina defense’s inability to stop anybody from scoring late in games, could makes for a long trip back to Columbia.
For South Carolina, the only thing that the defense should need to do is not blow a huge lead at the end. This Arkansas team is not built to come from behind, and if the Gamecocks build a big lead early—as they have done all year—then the formula for success defensively should be simple: get pressure with the four up front and drop seven into coverage. If the Razorbacks are trailing by any more than 14-17 points late in Saturday’s game, they will have to abandon their strength—running the football—which should give the Gamecocks an opening.
After junior defensive end, Jadaveon Clowney decided to sit the Kentucky game last week, the media erupted and speculations of Clowney’s commitment to the team were rampant. As Spurrier began to assuage the hysteria surrounding the situation, the facts of this fiasco were brought to the light and after undergoing treatment three times a day—with the intention of making it back onto the field Saturday, Clowney was back on the practice field Wednesday night. His status for Saturday is still listed as questionable, but the potential of his return has to excite the Gamecock faithful and nauseate the Razorback fans.
Also on the injury front, starting MIKE linebacker, Kaiwan Lewis, has missed practice all week with a leg infection that will likely keep him out of action Saturday. In his absence, freshman T.J. Holloman will fill in and look to make an impact.
Defensively, the Razorbacks have given up 30 points in a game four times in their six games, and have not held an opponent to fewer than 24 this season. This is comparable to what the Gamecocks have done defensively; however, the Gamecocks’ defense has given up most of those points in the 4th quarter (51 in the last three weeks, of a total 78). Arkansas has been consistently mediocre defensively, throughout most of their games including giving up 30 last week to weak offensive Florida team sans starting quarterback Jeff Driskel.
South Carolina has shown no problems scoring points on offense this year and should not have too much trouble on Saturday. Their balance has been outstanding and behind a big offensive line that seems to get better every week. Even with a brief injury scare, Connor Shaw has been dynamite all season long. Outsiders to the program and national media often advertise Shaw as a strictly running quarterback, and while his mobility is invaluable to the success of this offense, his passing this year—and throughout his career—has been phenomenal. He is completing almost 69% of his passes and has not thrown an interception this year. Although his 927 yards and seven touchdown passes are by no means gaudy, his efficiency is remarkable and is a perfect complement to a run-heavy Gamecock offense.
At 215.4 yards per game, South Carolina is averaging six-tenths of a yard less than the Razorbacks on the ground. With Brandon Wilds still sidelined for another couple of weeks, SEC-leading rusher Mike Davis will continue to get the bulk of the carries, with Shon Carson giving Davis an occasional breather. On only 92 carries, Davis has 614 yards in five games—for a ridiculous average of 6.7 yards per carry—and eight rushing touchdowns. Expect Spurrier to feed the beast early and often, and not necessarily all in the rushing game. Davis has caught 12 passes for 181 yards this year, making him a big play threat catching the ball out of the backfield.
Offensively for South Carolina, balance and a quick start will be crucial to winning in Fayetteville for the first time since 2005. Until the defense can be trusted to not give up seemingly solid leads, the Gamecocks will be reliant on their offense continuing to put up points early and often to win.