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August 24, 2013
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South Carolina will kick off against North Carolina Thursday night hoping to start a potential historic 2013 campaign with a bang. Here are six keys for the Gamecocks to walk off the turf at Williams-Brice victorious.
1. Control the tempo. There's a reason this is number one; when elite defenses meet up-tempo offenses, the team that controls the pace generally decides the outcome. Take last November for instance, when the Gamecocks hogged the ball for nearly 40 minutes of possession against Clemson, running 86 plays to the Tigers' 59 and keeping Tajh Boyd and company off the field. Or the 2009 SEC Championship Game, when Alabama wrestled the SEC championship belt away from Florida by controlling the ball for over 39 minutes and running 71 plays to the Gators' 49.
But don't forget what happens when an up-tempo offense is left to operate unrestrained. In the Chick-Fil-A bowl, Clemson ran 100 plays to LSU's 48 and exhausted the same defense that smothered Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M earlier in the season.
It's not an exact formula for victory, but controlling the pace of Thursday night's game is crucial to South Carolina's cause. If the Gamecocks can put together long scoring drives and keep their own defense fresh, they'll be near-impossible to beat.
2. Hit Bryn Renner early. The senior gunslinger piled up 6,442 passing yards and 54 touchdowns in two seasons as North Carolina's starter, but he hasn't seen anything remotely similar to the pass rush at Lorenzo Ward's disposal. While harassing Renner won't completely neutralize North Carolina's offense - the Tar Heels actually ran the ball over 50 percent of their snaps last season - getting into the senior's head early with a few jarring hits could turn him into the same anxious, agitated mess Tajh Boyd became on Nov. 24 last season. Keeping Renner out of his comfort zone will lead to more three-and-outs and better South Carolina's chances of controlling the clock.
3. Establish a rhythm in the running game. Running backs coach Everett Sands recently named Mike Davis the starter for Thursday night, but he intends to work Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson into the game as well. Each of the three brings something unique to the table - Davis the light-footed sparkplug, Wilds the speedy bruiser, and Carson the soft-handed third-down back.
If Sands can find the right balance between the three, South Carolina will have a fresh-legged back on every play and the Tar Heel defense will be ground beef by the fourth quarter.
4. Take the pressure off of the young linebackers. We know the linebackers are young, inexperienced and not entirely healthy, but they'll look the part Thursday night if the rest of the defense plays sound. The defensive line and secondary have looked excellent from what I've seen in practice, and their lockdown play in open practices has given the linebackers room to make a few freshman mistakes without endangering the team's chances of success.
Kelcy Quarles told me over a week ago that he expected his teammates on defense to do just that. If his linemates can't get to the quarterback on a given play, he has full confidence that Victor Hampton and Co. will pick up the slack in the secondary. If Quarles is right, the linebackers will benefit from playing pressure-free. If not, they'll have to learn on the fly from their own mistakes.
5. Find an enforcer. South Caroline could benefit from having another defensive back willing to take on the enforcer role D.J. Swearinger relished last season. Maybe not someone to come onto the field and get ejected after his first hit, but rather someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Someone who will set the tone for the rest of the defense with bone-crunching hits, and someone to occupy the thoughts of any Tar Heel receiver reaching for a pass over the middle. Any number of candidates could take up this task, but I'd bet my money on backup safety T.J. Gurley, who lives to hit and should see plenty of playing time this fall.
6. Start Connor Shaw. It's well-known that Shaw is the unquestioned starter of this football team, but not so well-known how much he deserves the job. The son of a high school football coach, Shaw simply knows how to win, evidenced by his 17-3 (10-0 at home) record as South Carolina's starter. The Gamecocks' all-time leader in completion percentage (66.8), Shaw is just seven wins away from eclipsing Todd Ellis as the program's all-time leader in wins, and his winning percentage of .850 is far better than any other quarterback in the top-ten.
He's been the SEC Offensive Player of the Week four times and is just the second player in South Carolina history to pass for over 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a career. The list goes on and on, but the conclusion remains the same: Connor Shaw knows how to make the most of his arm and legs to carry the Gamecocks to victory.
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