Gamecocks primed to press advantages in critical SEC tilt

Bruce Ellington reels in the catch that helped keep USC in the SEC East race. - Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina needs to keep winning to keep the pressure on other SEC East foes in the race to Atlanta. If it can avoid the mistakes that have cost it dearly in past games, they should be able to do just that.

The Gamecocks return home to face a wounded Mississippi State team that needs to grab a win at Carolina or Texas A&M, or a home victory against Alabama or Ole Miss, to have a chance to head to a bowl game this season. At 3-4, the Bulldogs have played a very polarized schedule thus far this season - losses have come against Oklahoma State, at Auburn, and at home to LSU, while their wins are over Alcorn State, Troy, a one-point victory over Bowling Green, and a win last Thursday night at home over Kentucky, 28-22.

Mississippi State is actually a little better than you expect, especially on offense, after years of Dan Mullen - who came over based on his skills as Florida's offensive coordinator - putting together strong defenses with very weak offenses. For the first time in recent memory, the offense for State isn't dragging down an excellent defense. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the defense has slid slightly since the departure of Manny Diaz, leaving the Bulldogs mired in mediocrity while the rest of the SEC West (with the notable exception of Arkansas) improves.

On the offensive side, after putting up only 333 yards against Oklahoma State their first time out this season, a disappointing 21-3 loss to the Cowboys, the Bulldogs have put up no fewer than 415 yards in each game, which included 468 on 67 plays against LSU (7.0 per play) and 415 at Auburn (6.1), though the 447 against Kentucky looks better than it should thanks to the 79 plays MSU ran against the high-octane Wildcats (5.7). Given the recent uptick in the Gamecocks' defensive prowess, and the home-field advantage from Williams-Brice Stadium, I'd expect Carolina to keep the Bulldogs in check offensively - they outshine State in basically every statistical category when State's on offense.

So long as the Gamecocks aren't thrown by an encounter with a running quarterback - Kentucky's Jalen Whitlow was relatively successful against Carolina, so the defense will need to find ways to avoid falling to the same fate against Dak Williams, whose 490 yards on 80 carries (6.1 yds./att.) and 1158 yards on 150 throws (57% completion percentage with 7.7 yds./att.) makes him a dangerous threat every time the ball is snapped. However, he's only put up over 100 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in one game (against Auburn), so teams have been able to at least make him choose which way he wants to attack for the most part.

On the other side of the ball, State plays adequate defense, though exploitable on both sides. In particular, the Bulldogs have kept most offenses passing games in check, permitting 6.9 yards/attempt in their six games against Division 1-A opponents thus far. However, both Auburn and LSU were able to put up over 300 yards and over 9.9 yards per pass against the Bulldogs, and the Gamecocks' passing game compares favorably with both those teams.

On the ground, the Gamecocks will hope to emulate the success that Oklahoma State (286 yards at 7.2 a carry) and LSU (223 yards at 5.7) put together. Mike Davis and the Gamecocks struggled mightily last week against Missouri averaging less than three yards a carry, but a return to Williams-Brice Stadium and a match-up against a mediocre State run defense should help the Gamecocks get right.

One area that State will try to exploit is its tendency not to put the ball on the turf (and the Gamecocks' tendency to do just the opposite). Prescott only has three interceptions on the season thus far, though with only one in 174 attempts, Connor Shaw has him matched on that front. Fortunately for the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs share Carolina's struggles on special teams, with particular weakness on kicking field goals. If South Carolina can keep them out of the end zone, they may be turning 7s into 0s, not 7s into 3s.

South Carolina has lost two games this season - one against a Georgia team where it gave away 8.5 points in special teams and turnovers, and to Tennessee where they gave away 6 points in turnovers and 7 points on special teams. Avoid those two issues, and the Gamecocks should head to 7-2 and a major showdown against the weakened Florida Gators after a well-deserved bye week.

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