Saturday's Belk Kickoff Bowl between USC and North Carolina State does in fact feel like a bowl game. A neutral site affair in an NFL stadium with a lot on the line. USC can prove how much of an improved team they are from a year ago.
What better way to show that than to test their offseason progression against a veteran NC State team that has playmakers on both sides of the ball. This is almost the same Wolfpack team that was field goal away from taking down Clemson at Memorial Stadium last season.
“The strength of their football team is in their front four. Those guys are extremely talented – (Bradley) Chubb and (Kentavius) Street and (B.J.) Hill and (Justin) Jones. They’re really good football players, so we need to play well. Again, I think we’ve had a good camp, but talk is cheap. We’ve got to go play on Saturday afternoon and play well, and that’s what we plan on doing," USC head coach Will Muschamp said.
The Gamecocks don't have a cupcake game to open the year at all. This game could set the tone for their season.
Well that's obvious but USC struggled to score in the early part of the season in 2016 which cost them some games (at Kentucky comes to mind). With Jake Bentley going through a full offseason as the starting quarterback, a healthy assortment of weapons in Deebo Samuel, Hayden Hurst and KC Crosby this offense should be a lot better than a year ago. USC will also use three running backs with Rico Dowdle getting the start so they can be versatile with their running styles against a touted NC State defense and they'll that and more to get a win.
Muschamp is confident Bentley can get it done.
“It helps tremendously when you have experience and ability at the position, at the most important position on your squad. When you have that, it certainly gives you a lot more confidence to what you’ll be able to do and how you’ll be able to do it offensively in the game. To understand the calming effect that Jake has on the rest of our football team and certainly our offense is pretty heavy.”
The USC defense led the SEC in takeaways last year and Coach Muschamp has said they've gotten faster on defense. They are also by seniors at all three levels of the defense. It's hard to say if the Gamecocks will shut people down the way they did at times last year but if they can continue to force turnovers and allow Bentley and the offense to put more points on the board that could help USC immensely. The defense can stay fresher and the offense will have shorter fields to work with.
Control the Line of Scrimmage
This is probably the biggest matchup of the game. NC State has a highly touted front four that is the strength of their defense. USC will lean on Cory Helms, Alan Knott and Zack Bailey to help open holes for running backs Rico Dowdle, AJ Turner and Tyson Williams and keep Jake Bentley upright so the offense can control the clock and the scoreboard. If the line has trouble blocking or can't create enough time for plays to develop it will be long day in Charlotte for USC.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Skai Moore-The senior linebacker returns after missing last year with a neck injury and Muschamp has said they have faster defense because of his presence on the field. Hopefully Skai can pick up where he left off and be the lead tackler and playmaker for the Gamecocks.
With his physical North/South running style and experience Dowdle's ability to run the ball can ease the pressure off of Bentley and the rest of the offense.
USC's Specialists-The coaching staff will likely have a gametime decision on who they will go with at kicker as Alexander Woznick and Parker White have made it hard on special teams coach Coleman Hutzler to pick a go to guy. There are new faces at long snapper and holder as well so they will have to grow up quickly in a game where field position and any points USC can produce will be crucial.
The Gamecocks and Wolfpack kickoff at 3 pm at Bank Of America Stadium, the home of the Carolina Panthers, Saturday afternoon.
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