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September 27, 2012

10 questions for the Kentucky game

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South Carolina travels to Kentucky for a prime time matchup with the Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. The attention given to the bizarre loss two years ago masks the fact the Gamecocks have beaten Kentucky in 11 of the last 12 years, last year by 51 points in Columbia. Here are 10 questions going into the game:

1. Will Connor Shaw set a new SEC record for consecutive completions?: Shaw is sitting on 20 straight completions, four shy of the SEC record set by Tee Martin in 1998. If Kentucky employs the same strategy as Missouri last week and comes out in a soft cover two zone, the answer is yes because Shaw has the discipline to take what the defense gives. If that translates to an entire night throwing short passes over the middle to Marcus Lattimore and the tight ends, that's what he will do.

However, if Kentucky is aggressive and is willing to risk man-to-man coverage on the outside, then Shaw may have smaller throwing lanes. Shaw has completed 76.1 percent of his passes (35-of-46) for 423 yards and three touchdowns. Kentucky is seventh in the SEC in pass defense, but allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 71.2 percent of their passes, the highest figure in the SEC.

2. Why does Marcus Lattimore perform so well against SEC East teams?: Good question. But there is no doubt Lattimore seems to get amped up for games against SEC East opponents. And with four of USC's next five games against divisional foes, that bodes well for the Gamecocks. This year, Lattimore has 110 yards and two touchdowns against Vanderbilt, and 85 yards rushing and seven receptions against Missouri.

Lattimore had one of the best halves of his career in the first half at Kentucky two years ago until suffering the ankle injury early in the third quarter. He followed up with 102 yards on the ground against the Wildcats last year. Clearly, Lattimore recognizes games against SEC East opponents are critically important if the Gamecocks are truly striving to get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.

3. How many touches will Lattimore get this week?: Probably between 25 and 30. He had 28 touches in the win over Missouri last Saturday with 21 carries and seven catches. He had 26 touches in the opening game win at Vanderbilt. Around 22 or 23 rushing attempts combined with four or five receptions sounds about right for Lattimore. Clearly, the Gamecocks function better on offense when Lattimore handles the ball a large percentage of the time.

Last Saturday, Lattimore touched the ball in 28 of the 62 plays run by USC, a 45.2 percent "touch" percentage. In the opener, he had 26 touches (23 carries, 3 receptions) in 62 plays, a 41.9 touch percentage. Hey, it's not rocket surgery. When USC has found ways over the past three seasons to consistently get the ball into Lattimore's hands, it usually has success.

4. Will USC's special teams shine again?: Perhaps, but the Gamecocks might find a little less running room than last week's game against Missouri. Kentucky is second in the SEC in kickoff coverage with a net average of 42.4 yards per kickoff and seventh in the SEC in punting (net average of 39.8 yards) and allowed an average of two yards per return (26 yards on 13 returns by opponents). USC, meanwhile, is averaging 16.0 yards per punt return, so the Wildcats could provide a good test for returner Ace Sanders and the punt return team. USC has been able to return just two kickoffs, so the data is lacking in that area even though one of the returns is Bruce Ellington's 50-yarder against Missouri. I have a feeling either Sanders or Ellington will snap off a long return on Saturday night.

5. Has the brutal road loss to Kentucky two years ago motivated USC this week?: Yes. Freshman defensive back T.J. Gurley, who now is playing behind Brison Williams at strong safety, said the veteran players on the team have reminded the younger players about what happened in 2010 when USC led, 28-10, at halftime despite a couple of turnovers and then collapsed over the final 30 minutes.

Worse, the loss came one week after the huge upset win over No. 1 Alabama, so the perception nationally was USC wasn't ready to play even though the opposite was true. Marcus Lattimore used the word "embarrassing" on Wednesday to describe the loss, which didn't prevent USC from making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Clearly, the veteran leaders on the team want redemption, and they're likely to get it.

6. How man snaps will Akeem Auguste play?: Probably five to 10. Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton will remain the starters until Auguste proves he can handle a heavier workload considering he has appeared in only one game over the past two seasons. Grady Brown said Tuesday that the coaches will "take it slow" with Auguste and try to avoid repeating the mistake made in August of bringing him back too quickly when he participated in a scrimmage and aggravated the groin injury. Thus, Auguste will be eased back into the lineup. When he does, he will have to battle hard to challenge either Legree or Hampton for a starting cornerback job. But it could be a few weeks before Auguste is properly positioned to do that. Right now, his role is to help bolster the depth.

7. How many penalties will get called in the game?: Statistically, not many. USC is the least penalized team in the league with an average of 35.8 penalty yards per game, while Kentucky is second with 36.8 penalty yards per game. USC is averaging 4.5 flags per game (18 in four games), while the Wildcats are slightly higher (4.8 per game). So, figure on about 10 penalties being called. Of course, by mentioning it, Murphy's Law now goes into effect and the contest will turn into a penalty-filled marathon.

8. Who will start at quarterback for Kentucky?: Head coach Joker Phillips said Thursday that the chances of sophomore Maxwell Smith starting at quarterback for UK are "100 percent." Considering the putrid showing by the Wildcats passing attack last week in Florida, that's not a surprise. What is somewhat surprising is who would go into the game if Smith is injured or unable to play. Phillips said true freshman Jalen Whitlow would get the call instead of senior Morgan Newton, who has failed to live up to expectations after being a highly touted prospect five years ago. When a fifth-year senior quarterback is passed on the depth chart by a true freshman, something is terribly wrong. But that's the state of the Kentucky football program in a nutshell.

9. Is there really anything to fear about Kentucky?: Not really. Of course, anytime you go on the road in the SEC, strange things can happen as the Gamecocks discovered two years ago. Last Saturday, Kentucky's running game showed some life with 159 yards on 32 rushing attempts, one week after managing just 41 yards on 19 attempts against Western Kentucky. Looking closely at the SEC statistics, the Wildcats don't appear to do anything particularly well. They are fourth in passing offense (256.5 yard per game), but that lofty ranking in due in large part to the 354 yards and 332 yards passing they had against Kent State and Western Kentucky, respectively. But when they faced an SEC defense for the first time last weekend, they floundered through the air.

The Wildcats are converting 44.6 percent of their third downs this season, setting up an intriguing battle with USC's third down defense (23.7 percent conversion rate by opponents). Wide receiver La'Rod King is tied for second in the SEC with 6.5 receptions per game, and he appears to be UK's main threat on offense. But he's hardly Randall Cobb. Interestingly, Kentucky's leading rusher, Raymond Sanders (67.0 yards per game) is listed third on the depth chart, a sign he may be gaining most of his yards late in games. In fact, 33.3 percent of his yards were derived on a single 67-yard run.

10. Will the Kentucky men's basketball team receive the biggest cheers from the Commonwealth Stadium crowd? : Kentucky is a basketball school, so the answer is an emphatic yes. However, the defending national champions must replace most or all of their significant players from a year ago.

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