South Carolina won its first four games of the season before falling to defending national champ Auburn two weeks ago. To the credit of Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks, they bounced back strong with a 54-3 thrashing of Kentucky last weekend.
"We had a balanced attack. We got over 600 yards," said Spurrier after the win. "We haven't done it much. It was a fun game because everyone got to play."
The good news for Dan Mullen's Mississippi State squad is that it owns a respectable 3-3 record and has put forth outstanding effort every time out. On a down note, all three SEC tilts have resulted in defeat. Fortunately, the Bulldogs were able to take a break from league action last weekend and cruised to a 21-3 victory over UAB on the road.
"We pulled out a great win against a tough team that played us tough last year," said Mullen.
South Carolina holds a 7-6 advantage in the all-time series with Mississippi State, thanks to five consecutive wins over the Bulldogs.
Gamecocks' sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw began the season as the starter, but he lost his job to senior Stephen Garcia halfway through the opener. But after Garcia racked up an NCAA-leading nine interceptions, Spurrier decided to go back to Shaw for the Kentucky game. All the young signal caller did was complete 26-of-39 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, reclaiming his starting gig. Star wideout Alshon Jeffery reemerged as a major weapon, hauling in two TDs.
"He was ready to play," said Spurrier of Shaw. "Connor has been here two years. He's been practicing. He practiced well this week. He was sharper in practice than he was today. We had a lot of good plays called, and he threw them perfectly."
On Tuesday it was announced that Garcia has been dismissed from the team for what USC athletics director Eric Hyman said was the troubled signal callers inability to follow certain guidelines established over the summer when he was reinstated following a suspension (violation of team rules) last spring.
Give the South Carolina defense plenty of credit for an outstanding effort against Kentucky last time out, as the Wildcats managed only 96 total yards, including an embarrassingly low 17 passing yards on just four completions. The Gamecocks came up with six takeaways, including four interceptions, and limited UK to 2-of-13 efficiency on third-down conversion attempts.
Overall this season, South Carolina is generating 35.5 ppg while racking up 416.5 total ypg. The Gamecocks have turned the ball over 16 times, largely because of Garcia's carelessness, but Shaw figures to take better care of the ball moving forward. He will continue to throw it to Jeffery and hand it to star tailback Marcus Lattimore, who has rushed for 779 yards and nine touchdowns already.
Opponents are scoring 20.3 ppg against the Gamecocks, who are yielding a mere 274.5 total ypg. The fact that South Carolina is giving up only 3.8 yards per rushing attempt and 8.3 yards per pass completion is obviously impressive, as is the fact that the club has 22 takeaways in six games. Antonio Allen, who has 5.5 TFL to his credit, has three interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Defensive end Melvin Ingram, one of the team's top defenders, is listed as questionable for this weekend's tilt with a foot injury.
Mississippi State has only committed eight giveaways in six games, so South Carolina will have to work hard to muster takeaways this week. Chris Relf has started every game under center this season, but he has fallen short of expectations for MSU, throwing more interceptions (five) than TDs (four). As a result, Tyler Russell has seen some time under center recently and has compiled as many TDs as Relf while tossing only one pick. Chad Bumphis is the most talented receiver on the roster, but he doesn't touch the ball enough. As for the ground attack, Vick Ballard leads the charge with 531 yards and five touchdowns.
The Bulldogs are a solid defensive team that limits opponents to 20.2 ppg and 349.0 total ypg. Considering the fact that MSU is yielding just 3.9 yards per rushing attempt and 9.2 yards per pass completion, the club is capable of slowing down both means of attack. The most active defender on the roster is Brandon Wilson, as he has 50 tackles to his credit.
Mississippi State posted 416 total yards against UAB last weekend, and Russell completed 11-of-13 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Clearly, he earned the right to take the majority of the snaps this week, but it remains to be seen how Mullen handles the quarterback situation on game day.
"It wasn't that Chris (Relf) was playing poorly; I just felt we needed a spark, and I guess putting Tyler (Russell) in was the best thing I could do to try to create a spark," said Mullen, who made the switch from Relf to Russell at halftime. "Tyler came in and played exceptionally well. He had a lot of energy and created the spark for the team."
Ballard rushed for 101 yards against the Blazers, and Bumphis got into the end zone. Clearly, the offense wasn't under much pressure to put up big numbers since the MSU defense dominated the game.