Here's what to watch for tomorrow when the Gamecocks take on UCF.
Three Keys to Victory
3. Improved defensive play up front. UCF is a team that will seek to throw the ball and run on the edges, but most of our defensive problems owe to poor play up front, so that's what I'm watching for most closely. So far this season, defensive play up front has taken a huge step back. We knew the young linebackers would struggle, but the extent of their struggles in soundly defending their gaps has been striking. The hope was that the defensive line would be dominant enough to mask such deficiencies at linebacker, but with Deke Adams's installation of a more aggressive style on the defensive line, that hasn't been the case. Whereas Brad Lawing coached his tackles to protect their gaps inside and his ends to seal the edge, Adams asks his guys to attack upfield more aggressively. There's nothing wrong with Adams's style if you have the linebackers needed to compensate if the linemen play overaggressively, but we don't have that luxury right now. The question going forward is going to be whether we tweak the scheme on the defensive line or whether the linebackers improve, and I'm guessing it's going to have to be the latter. The good news is that the young linebackers probably will improve over the course of the season, but are they there yet? I'm really curious to see how we do when we see the wildcat again. Against Vandy, it seemed like every time the 'Dores ran Wesley Tate out of the formation, Tate could wait patiently for the linemen to overpursue, at which point he found a hole and abused the linebackers. I doubt UCF uses the formation as much because it's simply not a wise move for them to take their best player, Blake Bortles, off the field for extended periods, but they will use it. How do we respond?
2. Stay balanced on offense. This has been an extremely balanced offense throughout the first part of the year. The 'Cocks are passing for just above 250 yards per game and running for around 225. Our balance keeps opponents on their toes. Heck, even our running game in and of itself seems well-designed to keep opponents on their toes, with Connor Shaw operating a lethal read-option attack that seems to have an answer for every defensive wrinkle. Maintaining this level of balance is key for the Gamecocks to continue to have the kind of offensive success they've had lately. You particularly want to see Carolina continue to throw the ball well; I think we all knew we'd be able to run the ball well, but while some of us were optimistic that we'd be able to throw well, others were skeptical of Shaw's ability to become a top-flight SEC passing quarterback. He's done just that, though, so far, distributing the ball with ease to a talented if un-heralded receiving corps. Keep it up, Connor.
1. Protect the football and win the turnover battle. Any Gamecocks fan who thinks this game is going to be a cakewalk is in for a rude awakening. That said, unless we turn the ball over frequently, we're probably going to score a lot of points in this game. In that event, three stops or so probably wins it for us, and with Clowney and two good cover corners, we should be able to come up with at least that many over the course of the game. In this sense, we should be good if we don't blow scoring opportunities/create easy points for UCF by turning the ball over.
To be honest, as this game approaches, I have an increasingly good feeling about it. For all the hand-wringing over the Gamecocks' early play, the lone loss was in a very closely played game against a top-ten opponent, and the two wins, while neither was flawless, were fairly dominant take-downs of decent-ish teams. If we've made improvement over the off-week, we should be able to handle UCF, which at best should only be mildly better than Vandy and UNC. The game may be interesting at points, but I'm taking Carolina, 37-21.