What: Kentucky (1-3) at No. 13 South Carolina (3-1)
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250), Columbia
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: FSN (Bob Rathbun, Tim Couch, Elizabeth Moreau); Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM in Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Langston Moore)
Except for the final two games of the season, the nonconference portion of the 2013 schedule takes a hiatus for South Carolina as they begin a stretch of six straight SEC games with a home encounter against struggling Kentucky. The Gamecocks have won 13 straight home games dating back to the 2011 season, third longest in the nation. Will USC's winning ways at home continue?
USC OFFENSE v. UK DEFENSE:
Four days ago, Dylan Thompson was eyeing his third career start and first against a SEC opponent. But that was before Connor Shaw rapidly recovered from the apparent shoulder injury he suffered early at UCF last weekend. Shaw was photographed wearing an arm sling on the sidelines, and USC feared the worst.
But three standout practices convinced Steve Spurrier that Shaw was ready to go, so the senior will make the 25th start of his career on Saturday. Shaw has completed 64.5 percent of his passes (49-of-76) for 665 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions this season. Dylan Thompson should step onto the field at some point, perhaps as early as the third or fourth possession.
Regardless of who has called signals, the USC offense is moving the football at a clip rarely seen in the last 40 years. USC is averaging 507.7 yards of total offense in the last three games, 490 in last weekend's win at UCF. If USC gains 467 yards against the Wildcats, they will total 2,000 yards over a four-game stretch for just the second time in school history.
Kentucky is next-to-last in the SEC in rushing defense (200.8 yards per game) and was gashed for 242 yards and 246 yards on the ground by Louisville and Florida, respectively, in their last two games. Since the Wildcats haven't proven they can stop the run this season (even Western Kentucky had 216 rushing yards in the opener), do the Gamecocks duplicate the second half of the UCF game and come out in the I-formation and rely on the strength and power of Mike Davis (508 yards on 71 carries; SEC leading 127 yards per game) to move the ball with some read option for Shaw mixed in?
Next to how many carries Davis will get and how effective Shaw will be coming off the shoulder injury, the most intriguing question facing the Gamecock offense is whether the coaches will take the redshirt off freshman David Williams in the wake of Brandon Wilds' injury. Shon Carson will be the No. 2 running back while Wilds is sidelined, but he has just three carries for six yards this season.
Kentucky's pass defense will challenge the Gamecocks in two ways: 1) the Wildcats have allowed 175 yards per game through the air, the second lowest figure in the SEC, and kept Louisville's acclaimed quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in check for portions of that game three weeks ago; 2) UK defensive end Za'Darius Smith, a JUCO transfer, is second in the SEC with 4.5 sacks (1.12 per game).
Middle linebacker Avery Williamson is the undisputed leader of the Kentucky defense and he leads the SEC in tackles with 42 in four games (10.5 per game). However, Kentucky has just one interception in four games, so whether they possess playmakers in the secondary is open for debate. Without Shaq Roland for the second game in a row, Bruce Ellington, Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd represent USC's best pass-catching threats.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Connor Shaw, RB Mike Davis, RB Shon Carson, WR Bruce Ellington, WR Nick Jones, TE Busta Anderson, LT Corey Robinson, RT Brandon Shell,
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Za'Darius Smith, DE Alvin Dupree, DT Mister Cobble, MLB Avery Williamson, CB Nate Willis.
1. USC RB Mike Davis vs. UK MLB Avery Williamson.
2. USC WR Bruce Ellington and WR Damiere Byrd vs. UK CB Nate Willis and CB Cody Quinn.
3. USC DE Jadeveon Clowney vs. UK LT Darrian Miller.
COACH'S COMMENT: "We aren't sitting around here patting ourselves on the back. We're very fortunate to be top-25, very fortunate to start the season in the top-10. Somebody asked me the other day, 'How'd you guys get to be number seven in the country?' I said, 'Because Jadeveon Clowney's hit was shown the whole off season.' Every voter said he's probably going to do that every play of the game, he's going to disrupt every offense, nobody can do anything against South Carolina. It's not a one-man game, it's a team sport" - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.
UK OFFENSE v. USC DEFENSE:
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops is evidently well aware of the ancient football adage that if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one.
Since taking over in Lexington 10 months ago, Stoops has patiently waited for either Jalen Whitlow or Maxwell Smith to step forward and take the reins of UK's 'Air Raid' offense, but neither one has played well enough in the first four games to claim the spot permanently. Like most football coaches, Stoops prefers to have a solid No. 1 quarterback and a reliable backup.
After four games, he's been continuously frustrated even though the duo, which has divided snaps almost equally, has combined to complete 61.1 percent (77-of-126) of their passes for five touchdowns and two interceptions. Smith leads the team in passing yardage (634 yards), while Whitlow has completed 66 percent of his passes (33-of-50) and rushed for 169 yards.
Moreover, Kentucky is averaging 5.6 yards per rushing attempt. Nonetheless, those positive numbers have led to few sustained drives as Kentucky is a distant last in the SEC in third-down conversion percentage (23.4 percent) and total first downs (71), and next-to-last in red zone offense (73.3 percent).
The Wildcats are a dismal 1-for-21 on third down opportunities in the past two games against the quality defenses of Louisville and Florida.
Kentucky is averaging 238.8 passing yards per game, eighth best in the SEC, but eliminate the Wildcats' 41-7 victory over hapless Miami of Ohio from the equation and the weekly average dips dramatically to 180.7 yards per game, which would be 12th best in the conference.
Supposedly, Stoops earmarked one of the quarterbacks to start against USC, but a poor practice by that signal caller on Tuesday may have stymied those plans. A day later, Stoops ranted for about six minutes about his team's poor preparations for Saturday.
Kentucky is mainly young and new at the skill positions. Leading rusher Jojo Kemp (186 yards) is a true freshman averaging 8.9 yards per carry, while the top three receivers are JUCO transfer Javess Blue (18 receptions) and true freshmen Ryan Timmons (15 catches) and Alex Montgomery (10).
The reliable Raymond Sanders, a senior with a ton of mileage on the tires, is second in rushing with 169 yards on 31 carries.
USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has spent the week concerned just as much about getting his defense squared away than the Wildcats. Without the former, the latter is unimportant. The near death experience at UCF when the defense inexplicably allowed two long pass plays has placed the secondary in the crosshairs and Spurrier devoted part of the week to assisting Ward and Grady Brown in putting the unit on the same page. Zone defense and open field tackling have proven especially troublesome.
But Ward didn't forget about Kentucky, especially since the Gamecocks have had to prepare for two Kentucky quarterbacks. The goal: Put together four good quarters of football with no letdowns.
One category USC continues to excel is sacks. After leading the SEC and finishing fifth in the country with 43 sacks a year ago, the Gamecocks are second in the conference with 12 sacks after four games. Kelcy Quarles leads USC with three sacks, while Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton two each.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Jalen Whitlow, QB Maxwell Smith, RB Raymond Sanders, RB Jojo Kemp, WR Javess Blue, WR Ryan Timmons, LT Darrian Miller.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Chaz Sutton, DT Kelcy Quarles, MLB Kaiwan Lewis, OLB Marcquis Roberts, CB Jimmy Legree, CB Victor Hampton, FS Brison Williams.
1. UK QB Jalen Whitlow vs. USC MLB Kaiwan Lewis and OLB Marcquis Roberts.
2. UK WR Javess Blue and WR Ryan Timmons vs. USC CB Victor Hampton and CB Jimmy Legree.
3. UK LT Darrian Miller and RT Jordan Swindle vs. USC DE Jadeveon Clowney and DE Chaz Sutton.
COACH'S COMMENT: "We know there are a lot of things we need to get corrected. With the quarterback situation we need to continue to evaluate that as both guys struggled (last game). Looking ahead to South Carolina, it's going to be another great challenge. We're really looking forward to going down there, playing at South Carolina. We know it's a real challenge. I have a lot of respect for Coach Spurrier. I've known him and his son, Steve, Jr., for a long time, so it will be a big challenge but we're looking forward to it" - Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops.
Quarterback - Edge to USC
Running Back - Edge to USC
Wide Receiver - Even
Offensive Line - Edge to USC
Tight End - Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Edge to USC
Linebacker - Edge to UK
Secondary - Edge to USC
Special Teams - Edge to UK
SYNOPSIS: Four things you need to know about this game: 1) USC rarely loses to Kentucky (once in last 13 games); 2) Spurrier rarely loses to Kentucky (once in 20 games); 3) USC has won 13 straight home games; 4) Kentucky is still Kentucky until further notice. The worst news for the Wildcats this week was Shaw would start at quarterback for USC. In two starts against Kentucky, Shaw is 41-of-57 (71.9 percent) passing for 459 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. His four TD passes in 2011 remain a career high. Two years ago, USC routed Kentucky by 51 points at Williams-Brice Stadium. More of the same? Difficult to say the game will be that lopsided, but if USC brings their 'A' game, as they often do at home, Kentucky's chances of winning are slim?
PREDICTION: Kentucky can't stop the run. USC has perhaps the top running back in the SEC. Easy, right? Well, you know Spurrier wants to throw the ball, too, as we saw over and over again in the first half of last week's game in Orlando. With Shaw starting, we'll see some one-back, some zone read and possibly more of the I-formation that worked like a charm last weekend. The most intriguing question entering the game is which quarterback Mark Stoops will choose to start. Will he stick with one signal caller or rotate them as he's done in the first four games? The more mobile Whitlow would seem to be the better choice against USC's aggressive and fast defensive front. USC always seems to play good football at home. Nothing Kentucky brings to the table will change that reality. Maybe things will change when Stoops has three or four recruiting classes under his belt. Until then, make it 14 wins in a row at sold-out Williams-Brice.
The Pick: USC 41, Kentucky 20