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October 22, 2013

Lewis, defense prepare for Missouri

No. 20 South Carolina's SEC East title hopes hang in the balance as it prepares for Saturday's game at No. 5 Missouri, and sophomore Mike linebacker Kaiwan Lewis says the Gamecocks have embraced the challenge of knocking off the unbeaten Tigers with their backs against the wall on the road.

"We're ready to get after Missouri. We know the meaning of the game," said Lewis, recently recovered from a right leg infection that caused him to miss the Arkansas game. "We feel like if we beat them, the SEC East is wide open."

Lewis said after practice Tuesday he doesn't know how three-way ties are broken in the SEC East, but that after South Carolina's 23-21 loss to Tennessee last week, Saturday is a do-or-die situation for the Gamecocks.

"There's no other way to state it," Lewis said. "It's the biggest game. If we beat them, we're right in the thick of things, as we still are."

"If we beat Missouri, it definitely puts us in the path to hopefully be in Atlanta," Lewis said.

The Gamecocks' 3-2 conference record leaves them in a three-way tie for second in the SEC East with Florida and Georgia. But Missouri, at 3-0 in the conference, needs only to win four of its final five SEC games to clinch the division.

Even if South Carolina can escape Faurot Field Saturday with a win, the Gamecocks will need help from another SEC team to force Missouri into a tie. But Lewis said it's still "kind of a blessing to be No. 2 (in the division) right now, so we have a shot at Missouri this week, and hopefully we can overtake them at some point before the season is out."

Despite all of the variables that factor into South Carolina's chances of reaching the SEC Championship Game, Lewis said the team is focused only on the task at hand this weekend. Paramount to that will be containing Missouri's offense, which ranks eighth in the nation in scoring offense with 44.3 points per game and second in the SEC in total offense with 513.4 yards per game. Lewis, currently backing up redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman, says the defense is improving steadily to take on such a challenge.

Lewis played with Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Texas after his senior season in high school. Mauk was a Parade All-American and a two-time high school state player of the year in Ohio, so Lewis said he wasn't surprised at Mauk's success against a stout Florida defense last week. In his first career start, Mauk amassed 310 yards of total offense and two touchdowns in leading the Tigers over Florida.

But Lewis said South Carolina's defense is getting better in its own right, citing the Gamecocks' 14 tackles for losses at Tennessee and their frequent visits into the Volunteers' backfield. Lewis said South Carolina's defense is gradually regaining its aggressiveness and swagger from the unit a year ago.

"We're coming together as a full defense, trying to play on Saturdays, get things going," Lewis said. "I think (things are) going the right direction for us on defense."

Lewis was the starter at Mike linebacker earlier this season, even recording 12 tackles in the Georgia game, but his role has declined with Holloman's emergence at the position. Despite the setbacks, Lewis said he's improving along with the defense.

"I was just ready to come out here and play a good game each and every week and try to develop my game each and every week and get better," Lewis said. "Those are my goals, and I feel like I'm progressing each and every week with communication and performance as well."

Beating Missouri on the road with so much at stake will be no small task, but the game strikes Lewis as just another obstacle in the way of South Carolina's first SEC Championship Game appearance since 2010.

"It's been a dogfight between all of us in the East now, and everybody is still climbing up at the top," Lewis said.

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