The Ol’ Ball Coach Steve Spurrier returns to his self-named The Swamp this Saturday to take on his former Florida Gators in a pivotal SEC East matchup. The game is huge for several reasons. For starters, ESPN’s College Game Day comes to Gainesville for the first time since 2009, when they pregamed the Florida-Florida State game. The winner of this game also gets a big leg up on the SEC East title hunt. The buzz of the way-too-early BCS rankings, where Florida came in at the #2 spot behind SEC West favorite Alabama, and the hype of Game Day is without a doubt felt here in Gainesville. Let’s preview this match-up against a tough South Carolina team.
The South Carolina Gamecocks, despite coming off a tough 23-21 loss to the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge last week, are still a very, very good team. On offense, the Gamecocks are similar to Florida in that their run games are very established, but their passing game has not been consistent all year. USC’s quarterback Connor Shaw comes in averaging 130 pass yards per game, completing 69.4% of them. Against LSU last week, the pressure was on Shaw to open up the passing game, as the Tigers held star running back Marcus Lattimore to just 34 yards and a touchdown. Shaw had 177 yards on the night, but threw two interceptions and had no touchdowns. One of those interceptions was in the fourth quarter and set up LSU to kick a go-ahead field goal. Shaw visibly struggled against LSU’s secondary, only completing 28.6% of his throws compared to his previous three games, where he completed close to 82%. If Florida can stop USC’s rushing attack, Shaw may once again have to try to open up the passing game against another ruthless secondary. However, that is a big if for Florida.
Gamecock running back Marcus Lattimore is currently questionable to play Saturday, dealing with a bruised hip. He did not practice Wednesday, but he was in practice Thursday. While Lattimore is seemingly not the same running back as he was before his season-ending knee injury last year, he is still a lethal weapon if he is able to go Saturday. He has 584 rushing yards on the season, and averages 4.5 yards per carry. Oh, and not to mention he has ten touchdowns on the year. Against Florida in 201o, Lattimore rushed for 212 yards and three touchdowns. Next in line behind Lattimore is Kenny Miles, who has 100 yards on 27 carries this year. If Florida can limit the USC rushing attack, expect Shaw to experience some major heat under center. Although Shaw does have a lot more experience starting under center than Driskel, Florida’s defense currently has 12 sacks on the season and 7 interceptions. Essentially, the key for Florida’s defense in stopping USC’s offense is stopping the run and pressuring Shaw, just as LSU did last Saturday. USC’s offensive line did not have a strong performance against the Tigers either, allowing four sacks. Florida’s front seven has to win at the line of scrimmage in order to get pressure on Shaw. Florida’s defense did give up a concerning 126 rushing yards, and their first red zone score in the fourth quarter last week, but they did have three sacks, forced a turnover, and blocked a field goal on special teams. Florida’s defense will be key against the Gamecocks, regardless if Lattimore is good to go or not.
Florida’s offense has been highlighted all year by their ground and pound philosophy, and it seems to be working just fine for Florida. Last week against Vanderbilt, quarterback Jeff Driskel went crazy and ran for 177 yards, while Mike Gillislee had just 67. Florida looks like it’ll do just fine using this approach based off of what we saw from USC’s “rush defense”, if you can call it that, against LSU. The Tigers ripped up the Gamecock defense and ran for 258 yards, as well as rushing for both their touchdowns. LSU virtually shut down USC star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to just six tackles. Clowney was also reported in practice this week to have a nagging foot injury, and it’s unclear as to if he does play, just how effective he will be. While Florida has been banged up at offensive line, Coach Will Muschamp had good news in terms of offensive tackle Xavier Nixon, offensive guard James Wilson and center Jon Harrison all being probable. Before the LSU game, the Gamecocks hadn’t given up more than 120 yards rushing. Florida comes into this week averaging an impressive 233 rush yards per game. If Florida can run the ball as effectively as they have been, it could go very well for Florida, but it’s important to note that South Carolina still has the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the country. Time will tell Saturday if Jeff Driskel needs to open up the passing game against the Gamecocks. He comes into this game with 836 passing yards on the season and a 66.7 completion percentage. If he needs to pass a lot more Saturday, it will not come too easily. The Gamecock secondary gives up about 188 passing yards per game, but they have 9 interceptions on the season.
Like I have said before, I think that the key to this game will be defense. But I want to stress that, with any good defense, there has to be an efficient offense to capitalize on their defense’s big plays. If Florida can run the ball effectively, just as LSU did last week, they have a very good chance to win Saturday. The other side of the ball has to stop the run and pressure Connor Shaw in order to shut down the Gamecock offense. If Florida gets a big win Saturday, they control their own destiny to reach Atlanta in December. The Ol’ Ball Coach will without a doubt come out swinging though, so that is no cake walk. Buckle up Gators, this game will be a great one.
Morgan Moriarty is a sophomore Telecommunications major at the University of Florida, and covers college football and recruiting for ESPN Radio. She is also on the University of Florida Women’s Club Water Polo Team. Follow her on Twitter @moriarty343