Columbia, SC (SportsNetwork.com) - The 13th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks will try to defend their home turf on Saturday night, as they take on the Kentucky Wildcats in an SEC showdown.
Kentucky has not gotten off to a great start in Mark Stoops' first season as head coach, as it has lost three of its first four games. There is some reason for optimism, however. as although they lost to Louisville (27-13) and Florida (24-7) in recent weeks, they fought hard from start to finish and played well against a pair of nationally-ranked teams.
"I really did think we did some good things (versus Florida)," Stoops said. "I thought our players played extremely hard on both sides of the ball. Looking forward to South Carolina, it's going to be another great challenge."
South Carolina lost the opportunity to control its own destiny in the SEC East when it was beaten by Georgia on Sept. 7, 41-30. Since then, however, the Gamecocks have responded with back-to-back wins over Vanderbilt (35-25) and at UCF (28-25). The triumph over the Knights last week came after a sluggish start saw them get shut out in the first half, which is certainly something head coach Steven Spurrier wasn't happy about.
"Somebody on top is looking out for our team right now because our mental decisions that we were making, we easily could have lost," said Spurrier, who was disappointed in his team allowing UCF to climb back in the game with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
South Carolina has a firm handle on the all-time series with Kentucky, 16-7-1, while includes a 38-17 win in Lexington last season.
Kentucky's offense has been the SEC's worst in terms of scoring (21.8 ppg), due mostly to some lackluster play under center.
Maxwell Smith has earned the majority of the snaps, but despite throwing four touchdown passes against only one interception, he has thrown for less than 160 yards per game and has completed fewer than 58 percent of his attempts. Jalen Whitlow (321 yards, TD, INT) has been more effective as a passer (.660 completion percentage) and is a strong runner as well (169 yards, two TDs).
"I think we're going to try to give it to one person, give him the reps and see what he can do," said Stoops, admitting that the two-quarterback system has not worked out the way he had hoped. "I think we need to do that."
Jojo Kemp (186 yards) is the team's leading rusher despite carrying the ball just 21 times. Raymond Sanders is also involved with 169 yards and a touchdown, although the running game as a whole has suffered from falling behind early in games.
Javess Blue has racked up 213 receiving yards and a touchdown on 18 catches, while Jeff Badet (124 yards) and Anthony Kendrick (102 yards) both average at least 20 yards per reception.
Luckily for the Wildcats, a solid defensive effort has kept them competitive in each contest. The unit surrenders just 23.2 ppg and 375.8 ypg, while holding teams to a 33 percent conversion rate on third down.
Avery Williamson has racked up 42 tackles in the early going while also recovering a fumble. Alvin Dupree (3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, FF) and Za'Darius Smith (4.5 sacks) have created a strong pass rush.
South Carolina has been one of the most efficient offenses in the SEC this season, scoring 30.0 ppg on 482.2 ypg while converting more than 50 percent of its third-down attempts, but it will be without its starting quarterback for the next few weeks.
Connor Shaw (.645, 665 passing yards, 232 rushing yards, six TDs, zero INTs) will miss a 2-3 weeks after suffering a shoulder injury against UCF. Fortunately, Dylan Thompson has seen plenty of action this year even with a healthy Shaw, throwing for 365 yards while accounting for three total touchdowns, although his efficiency (.548, two INTs) will need to improve as the full-time starter.
Mike Davis will be leaned on even more heavily in the absence of Shaw. The tailback is second in the SEC in rushing (508) and third in touchdowns (six).
Bruce Ellington (229 yards, TD) and Nick Jones (136 yards, three TDs) will act as Thompson's safety valves in the passing game, as they are the only two Gamecocks with double-digit receptions.
Defensively, South Carolina has not lived up to its high standards, as it ranks in the bottom half of the conference in allowing 25.3 ppg and 381.0 ppg. Spurrier is especially concerned with the unit's play in the secondary, where it has allowed more than 250 passing yards per game.
"We can't catch anybody that's out in the open right now," Spurrier said.
Preseason Heisman hopeful Jadeveon Clowney is off to a sluggish start with just two sacks, as fellow defensive lineman Kelcy Quarles (3.0 sacks, fumble recovery) has outproduced him. Kaiwan Lewis has a team-high 22 tackles, and Jimmy Legree has picked off a pair of passes.