Time to take on the Wildcats in Lexington. We've won eight straight against the Cats, and they're itching to end the streak. This will indeed be another tough game for the Gamecocks, as the Cats sport a salty defense and seemed to come around a bit on offense in the second half against Bama. Below are my three keys to victory.
Continue to Get Improvement on the Offensive Line to Jump-start the Offense
Lots of us thought that Ole Miss's stout defensive front would give us lots of trouble. However, while we gave up a few sacks, the line proteced Smelley well for the most part. Actually, as much as we pass the ball, it's probably foolish to expect to go a game without giving up a sack, so I'm thinking that we were close to where we need to be in terms of pass protection. And the results were striking: Smelley and the offense's best game of the year. Like Blake Mitchell, I think Smelley is showing us that he's capable of playing well when he gets protection. Unlike pass blocking, run blocking still lingers as a problem area for us. We did a little better in this department last week, especially when we went out of the I, but the holes were still few and far between. We need to continue to improve here to get more balance.
Our line won't get any rest against Kentucky. The Cats sport a solid group of defensive linemen and a group of linebackers that spend a lot of time in opposing teams' backfields. The big guys will need to play even better against Kentucky than they did against Ole Miss if we want to score 31 points again.This means sticking to assignments, getting a push on running plays, and getting less false start penalties. Smelley will have problems if we allow the Cats to tee off on him, and we need better run effort to see a more balanced offense.
My thinking is that we should continue to run out of the I more often. Our running game got a nice push while FB Pat DiMarco was in the game, and I liked some of the rollouts that Smelley made out of this formation. Plays like these could hopefully neutralize Kentucky's powerful defensive front. Putting Stephen Garcia in occassionally might help too, especially if we find early in the game that our guys aren't giving Smelley enough time.
Put Pressure on Mike Hartline
I liked the way our defense played in the second half against Ole Miss, but if there's one thing I would have liked to have seen more of, it would have been more pressure on Jevan Snead. I said before the game that Snead is a mistake-prone QB who oftentimes makes mistakes when he's under pressure, and that proved to be the case when we got in his face in the second quarter and he coughed up a fumble that Nate Peppers returned for a TD. We didn't get close to him in the second half though. He oftentimes had way too much time to throw the ball. I was a little hard on our DBs while watching the game, but the truth is that when your coverage guys are doing their jobs and keeping their receivers from getting open, your linemen should eventually be able to get in the QBs face. If they don't, good receivers will find a way to get open eventually. That happened a few times in the second half against Ole Miss.
Like Snead, Mike Hartline has been a little mistake prone this year, so getting in his face could cause him to make the kind of game-changing mistakes we forced Snead into last week and Andre Woodson into last year when we played the Cats. And even if we don't force many turnovers, a few sacks would be nice when our secondary forces Hartline to take lots of time making his decisions.
Special Teams Play
This is likely to be another close game, so we'll need every advantage we can get. Luckily, Ryan Succop's missed FG didn't hurt us last week, but it very well could have. We need Ryan to make all of his makeable kicks this week. We also need better returns. Chris Culliver and the kickoff return team had shown signs of being a good unit earlier in the year, but they didn't do much spectacular against Ole Miss. Now that the offense seems to be learning how to take advantage of good field position, a good return or two by Chris could really help us. If he gets the chance, I'd also like to see some good punt returns from Captain. And please, God, no bungles in this department: we can't afford block kicks and the like in a game that's likely to be decided by less than a TD.
I'll have to admit that the Wildcats are something of an enigma to me. With the exception of Alabama, they've played mostly benign opponents, and while they played Alabama well, something tells me that if they played the Tide again, Bama would win bigger. Kentucky's offense has been pretty pedestrian so far. The Cats beat Louisville because of all the points their defense scored, and they struggled at home against Middle Tennessee State earlier in the season, although we've also struggled against some questionable competition.
However, you can't discount the fact that their defense looks very legit, competition or no competition. And regardless of whether Bama was flat, Kentucky did play a dominant top 5 team close. Still, my gut tells me that we're going to win this game. I think it'll be a low-scoring game, one that comes down to the final minutes. I'll take the Gamecocks 17-13.