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South Carolina Gamecocks Football: Five Things I Want to See v. Vanderbilt

A year ago I was dreading this return trip to Nashville's West End. We barely escaped Vanderbilt Stadium in 2012 and the 2013 VU-USC matchup was tighter than we wanted or expected. By the end of the last season, we were the only SEC East squad that James Franklin had not vanquished during his sojourn in the SEC so I expected the Dores to have circled this game on the calendar and was bracing myself for a tough, nail-and-claw fight.

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VU Head Coach Derek Mason
VU Head Coach Derek Mason
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

But during the off-season, the fiery Franklin broke his word and the 'Dores' hearts by signing on with Penn State.  The Black and Gold recovered and seemed to have made a home run hire on short notice by snagging Derek Mason from the Stanford Cardinal.

Midway through September, however, some of the Commodore fans are now openly questioning Mason after being outscored 78-10 by Temple and Ole Miss, and needing to erase an 11 point deficit entering the 4th quarter in the UMass game (and barely holding on for dear life when the Minutemen missed a gimme FG that would have sent the game into OT).  Some fans have even already made up their mind.

Obviously Mason is not going to get the Ellis Johnson Treatment by Vandy [after all, he's already bested E.J.'s record with the '12 Golden Eagles by actually winning a game] and by all accounts he and his staff are doing well on the recruiting trail - more's the pity.

Despite their dismal 1-2 start, I still expect to get the 'Dores' absolute, die-in-the-last-ditch, cornered-animal shot, which is always dangerous no matter who you are playing in the SEC. True, Franklin poached most of the '14 VU recruiting class but there are still some talented ballplayers left on the team.  Some of the upperclassmen will also remember how close they played us over the past couple of years. Count on the fact that they will draw a line in the sand for this game and see if they can pull the mighty upset.

All that being said, if the Cocks come mentally prepared to take care of business, we should win by three or four TDs (and we will need to if we want to secure our current AP Top 15 ranking in the fast-fluctuating CFB landscape). A let-down loss to VU would be absolutely crippling to any hope of reaching the SECCG as Georgia will face the 'Dores in three weeks in Athens.

So without further ado, here are five things I want to see from USC next week as we visit the land of Anchor Down:

1.   Dylan Thompson Keeps Working on His Intermediate/Short Throws.

Facing a Vanderbilt secondary that was touched for 207, 367 and 258 passing yards by Temple, Ole Miss and Massachusetts, respectively, and which has already surrendered 7 receiving TDs - there is no way the HBC is not going to have Dylan Thompson come out throwing.  Obviously, we are going to take some deep shots.

But what I want to see is Dylan work on is his intermediate and short passing routes. This means avoiding what we saw late in both the A&M and ECU games - where D.T. was sailing balls on slants and curls and making contested throws to the endzone when there were safer options open underneath.  It also means seeing more what we saw against Georgia where he absolutely carved up the Dawgs over the middle [with one notable exception] and made his reads beautifully, keeping the Dawgs on their heels most of the night.

Dylan's mechanics have been oft-discussed, but he looks like he is taking coaching well and he has to be encouraged with the way the OL gelled against UGA (aren't we all?).  I expect him to continue making crisp throws, but assuming Coach Elliot's line continues to give him time in the pocket, what I want Dylan to do is avoid is pressing for deeper, contested throws when he has the chance to hit playmakers on shorter balls.  Assuming the WRs/TEs hold onto the rock, this should keep the chains moving and lead to scoring opportunities on every drive.   It will also give Dylan added confidence when we faced a ranked Mizzou team in Columbia in Week 5 and will need to be hitting those same throws against Gary Pinkel's defense.

2.   Whammy's Defense Pitches a Shut-out.

Against its only SEC competition - Ole Miss in week 2 - Vanderbilt's offense was completely anemic: just 167 total yards (107 rush, 60 pass) with just 9 first downs and only 4-13 on third down attempts. The best news for the 'Dores that week was that they only turned the ball over to the Rebs once [an INT] - as opposed to 7 times against Temple in the previous week [4 lost fumbles, 3 INT].

Before the UGA game, the Gamecocks ranked a humiliating 120 out of 124 in FBS total defense and we might not crack the top 100 after surrendering 408 yards to the Dawgs.   That being said, we have played as hard an opening three game frame as anyone in the country - against three Top 25 offenses and a bevy of special players who will be playing in the NFL soon enough (Hill & the Aggie receivers, Carden, Gurley).   So while Ole Miss is by the numbers a statistically better "D" than Carolina, I still think we can - and should - exceed their success by holding the Commodores under 200 yards and no scores.

Does shutting out VU mean much at the end of the day?   In terms of national perception - not really; yes, we need to cover the point spread to get "style" points necessary to keep our ranking, but that's pretty much it.   Conference-wise it means little, too - everyone expects us to spank Vandy and it's not the end of the world if we surrender a score or two if we still win big. Nevertheless, it would be a huge mental boost to Fire Ants to record a "clean sheet" as they say in soccer.  It's a reasonable goal.

Currently, it looks like Vandy's primary weapon is Fr. RB Ralph Webb; he only has 1 TD on the young season, but ran for 70 against Temple, 95 against Ole Miss and 118 against UMass, and he leads the Dores in both yard and YPC at 4.8 (NB - he averaged 5.0 against the Rebels).  Those are good numbers no matter what you think of the competition and shows he is improving in the Commodore's offense; but he's not Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel or Keith Marshall, either.  Because Vandy's passing has been mediocre [Stephen Rivers only 18 for 50, 245 yards, 1 TD, 69.3 QB rating; Patton Robinette only 19 for 27, 185 yards, 1 TD, 140.1 QB rating] I expect us to run a very similar defensive scheme to what we installed for Georgia where we shut down Webb and force the Vandy QB's to air it out.   Getting good pressure on the 'Dores' signal-callers will go a long way to shut down the Vandy O.

3.   We Keep Mike Davis Healthy.

We shouldn't need Mike Davis to beat Vanderbilt.  If we do, then we are in deep trouble

But where we will need Mike is on September 27 in a likely top 15 match-up against Missouri (currently No. 18 in the AP poll) and on the road on October 4 against UK and October 25 against Auburn.

I appreciate and admire that Davis is a passionate guy who wants the rock.  But he was dinged up at the end of last season, and seems to have nagging injuries (ribs, ankle) that have limited him this season to just 182 yards on 82 attempts, 4.4 ypc and 2 TDs - with only 15 and 66 rushing yards against A&M and UGA respectively (and only 1 and 16 yard receiving).  No doubt he is chomping at the bit to rack up big ground numbers against Vanderbilt, score his first SEC TD of the season, and maybe position himself back in the hunt for national and conference post-season honors - and I would love us to improve from being 90th in rushing among FBS teams [yes - you read that right].

All that being said, team goals must come first - and goal number 1 has to be keeping Davis healthy - which means limiting him against Vandy.

I'm not saying hold him out or put him on a carry-count.   But there can be a happy medium.  Assuming he is good to go and injury-free during the game, and that we are in control, once he gets 100+ rushing yards and a score or two, it would make sense not to keep riding him.  Vandy hasn't faced a legit 100+ yard / 20 carry back this season (Ole Miss spread 180 rush yards over 8 ball carriers) so Davis should have a chance to surpass the century-mark for the second time this season.  We have capable back-ups (see below) and bigger fish to fry, so I hope Davis comes out in the 3rd quarter.  He will have a chance to shine against Missouri, Kentucky and Auburn in what will be much more highly visible games. Staying healthy will also impress the NFL scouts more than empty yards against an over-matched Vandy defense - assuming Davis heads off for the pros next year [which I hope he doesn't, but would understand totally if he does].

4.   Give P.T. to David Williams, Connor Mitch and Perry Orth.

With Mike Davis still a little dinged and Brandon Wilds as our only battle-tested reserve, I'm worried we haven't seen more of David Williams, who RB position coach Everette Sands says is the second fastest man on the team.   I understood why he didn't see action against A&M, since we were behind and relying on the passing attack in a vain attempt to catch up.  But he only got 1 carry (no yds) and 1 reception (6 yds) against ECU and did not play in the UGA game (if he did, I missed him) and no carries or receptions against UGA. [h/t upstategamecockfan!]

While I hope Williams and Shon Carson get the majority of carries in the late 3rd and 4th quarters, now would be a good time to give him some carries against a 1st team defense by working him into some first half series.  Managing touches and getting guys to wait their turn is what all good teams face, but with an elite RB like Williams - and with the strong possibility both Davis and Wilds will try their luck in the NFL next year  - he needs to get his baptism by fire now, rather than later.

The same thing foes with Connor Mitch and Perry Orth.  The HBC did a good job working Dylan into some games and not simply when Shaw was injured or gassed.  We have a stout OL, and Dylan takes less chances with his body than Connor Shaw did; that means he is likely to remain healthy, but that is all the more reason to let the backups see time on the field.  Obviously, Dylan loses his eligibility after this year, so the smart play would be to make sure his replacement in 2015 has seen the field in 2014.  Assuming we are in control,I want to see Mitch and Orth get their shots. Also, I really want to know who is our # 2 QB.

5.   Continued Special Teams Improvement.

I've been a pretty vocal critic of Special Teams Coach Joe Robinson and his units, but following the UGA game I've decided to give the squawking a rest.  Shon Carson had a strong, smart and productive game against the Dawgs, and that 42 yard return at the beginning of the 4th was not only beautiful to watch but a huge boost for our momentum [we would score just 4 plays later - my only regret being we didn't milk a little more time off the clock].  So for the first time all season, I'm not calling for anyone to return kicks beside Shon, though I want him to keep the smart, bobble-free play that he showed against Georgia.

Landon Ard and Elliot Fry continue to impress in the kicking department.  Tyler Hull's punting still makes me wince a little, but nothing like last year and he has shown marked improvement.  That being said, I hope we don't see Hull in Nashville much.

Let me know if you disagree or there is something else you want to see from the Gamecocks.