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October 9, 2009

Supremacy Sustained? USC-UK Preview

What: Kentucky (2-2) at South Carolina (4-1);
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250), Columbia, S.C.;
When: Sat., Oct. 10, 12:30 p.m.;
TV/Radio: Fox Sports South (Bob Rathbun, Dave Archer, Jenn Hildreth); Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM In Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Terry Cousin); Replay on SportSouth Sun. 10/11 at 8 p.m. (Andy Demetra and Brad Muller).

South Carolina will be looking to sweep the four-game homestand when they square off with SEC East rival Kentucky Saturday afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium. This series has been dominated by the Gamecocks over the last decade. Their nine straight wins over UK represents USC's longest active winning streak over a Div. I-A opponent. Steve Spurrier has never lost to the Wildcats as a head coach, compiling a 16-0 record while at Florida and USC. Will Spurrier remain perfect against the Wildcats? USC will try to move up in the national polls with a win over Kentucky and then start preparing for the much-anticipated showdown with Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But the Gamecocks must first take care of business in front of the home crowd.

USC OFFENSE v. KENTUCKY DEFENSE:

Stephen Garcia is steadily turning into an excellent SEC quarterback. In Steve Spurrier's own words, the redshirt sophomore has made 'tremendous progress' over the last year in his quest to become the general of the USC offense.

His numbers have certainly improved over last season with a completion percentage of 60.0 percent (93-of-155) for 1,035 yards and six touchdowns, two in the third quarter of last week's 38-14 win over SC State. With 1,867 career passing yards, chances are good he will surpass the 2,000 career yard barrier against the Wildcats.

Garcia's biggest progression, though, has come in the critical area of ball security. The Tampa, Fla. native has tossed just two interceptions in five games and has gone 14 full quarters and 115 passes without having a pass end up in the arms of an opposing defender.

Overall, USC has committed just five turnovers all season, an average of one per game, while taking it away nine times for a plus-four rating in turnover margin. That figure represents a significant upgrade from last season when USC finished dead last in the SEC with a minus-11 rating.

If nothing else, Spurrier will take a repeat of Garcia's relief role last season in Lexington, Ky. when he replaced Chris Smelley and led the struggling USC offense to 10 points in the comeback win over the stunned Wildcats. Spurrier described the performance this week as Garcia's best since he arrived at USC in 2007.

With Kentucky's top two cornerbacks sidelined, USC must determine the best course to attack the often maligned UK defense. Do they come out and immediately test the Wildcats' inexperienced cornerbacks with throws downfield or do they stay patient, establish the running game and then hit some passes over the top after the safeties start cheating up to assist in stopping the ground game?

If Spurrier and the offensive coaches decide on the latter course, they will again rely on a running-back by committee approach with freshmen Jarvis Giles (team-high 231 yards) and Kenny Miles (168) along with junior Brian Maddox logging most of the carries. Bryce Sherman (10.8 yards per rush on five carries) should get a few opportunities as well.

But we know Spurrier must be licking his chops at the prospect of consistently connecting, finally, on some long passes to receivers like Moe Brown (2 TD's last week), Tori Gurley (17 receptions), Jason Barnes (8 receptions) and Alshon Jeffery (5), who collected his first TD catch of his career late in last Saturday's game.

One weapon who won't be available is tight end Weslye Saunders, sidelined with an ankle injury. Saunders, though, had seen his role in the offense diminish in recent weeks with only two receptions in the last three games. His replacement in the starting lineup is true freshman Justice Cunningham, who has one catch for nine yards this season.

Cornerback Trevard Lindley, out with a high ankle sprain, isn't just Kentucky's best defensive player, he might be the best UK player, period. But he's sidelined indefinitely along with Paul Warford, the cornerback starter on the opposite side. The absence of both players will hurt Kentucky severely.

True freshman Martavius Neloms will try to fill the huge void left by Lindley. Redshirt freshman corner Cartier Rice and sophomore Randall Burden must also play will take over for Warford.

WLB Danny Trevathan is ill and did not practice for a couple of days this week, but is expected to travel to Columbia. With Trevathan less than 100 percent, redshirt freshman Will Johnson could be thrown into the fire.

But Kentucky won't lack for some defensive talent. Middle linebacker Micah Johnson (6-2, 258 pounds) is big but moves well laterally, the main reason he's the top tackler for Kentucky with 35 stops in four games. Defensive end DeQuin Evans has three sacks and could be handful for USC's tackles to block.

KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Stephen Garcia, RB Kenny Miles, RB Jarvis Giles, WR Moe Brown, WR Jason Barnes, TE Justice Cunningham, LT Jarriel King, C Garrett Anderson.

KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: LB Micah Johnson, SS Calvin Harrison, FS Winston Guy, SLB Sam Maxwell, DT Corey Peters.

COACH'S COMMENT: "We're looking forward to playing Kentucky, a really good team. They've played in three straight bowl games. They happened to play Florida and Alabama the last few weeks, and that's why they're 0-2 (in the SEC). They're a very good team, and we've had a lot of close ones with them. I'm looking forward to another hard fought, close game against Kentucky" - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.

KENTUCKY OFFENSE v. USC DEFENSE:

Mike Hartline has exhibited both throughout his career and the last two weeks that he has the potential to be a serviceable SEC quarterback. But when he faces a talented defense, he struggles. He's gone up against the top two defenses in the conference the last two weeks and now must figure out a way to score against the No. 3 defensive unit in the face of what could be a ferocious pass rush. Good luck.

Hartline has completed 60.2 of his passes - a respectable number - for 653 yards and five touchdowns in the first four games. Unfortunately, he's also thrown six interceptions, five in the last two weeks, and has come heavy fire from Kentucky fans for dragging down the Wildcat offense with his mediocre play.

Hartline's best attribute is he sometimes does a good job managing the game. But he lacks a powerful throwing arm, meaning UK lacks a deep passing game. In short, he's not Andre Woodson, the starting QB for Kentucky the last time the Wildcats came to Columbia.

If you remember, Hartline was the quarterback last season for Kentucky when they scored just 10 points against the USC defense. The first seven points came on a pick-six by Trevard Lindley.

Top running back Derrick Locke, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound whirlwind, has battled injuries in his career but appears to have regained his speed. He had a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD against Louisville, a key play in UK's 31-27 win.

While senior Alfonso Smith is listed as Kentucky's No. 1 running back on the depth chart, Locke is far and away the leading rusher for UK with 244 yards in four games. Smith, limited with a splint on his thumb, is second with 121 yards

Besides Locke, the other key offensive playmaker for the Wildcats is sophomore wide receiver Randall Cobb, who was once thought to be the successor to Andre Woodson at quarterback. Cobb, who has 21 receptions for 248 yards, will direct the Kentucky offense when the UK coaches call for the Wildcat formation. Cobb was a talented high school quarterback and has the capability of hitting passes against SEC defenses.

If Hartline continues to struggle, Kentucky may increasingly start relying on the Wildcat a little bit more. But don't look for Cobb to become the full-time quarterback. The UK coaches still believe Hartline offers the 'Cats the best chance to win. If Cobb plays QB, Kentucky loses its lone threat at wide receiver. You can't throw the ball to yourself.

If there is one thing Kentucky's experienced offensive line does well is protect the quarterback. Last year, the Wildcats surrendered a league-low 13 sacks. Through four games in 2009 they've allowed five sacks, tying them for third in the SEC.

Question is, will the Kentucky blockers be able to keep outside linebacker Eric Norwood and defensive end Cliff Matthews away from Hartline? Not likely. Starting RT Justin Jeffries will not travel to USC because of a bad Achilles heel.

With Shaq Wilson still nursing a sprained neck, Josh Dickerson will make his first career start at middle linebacker on Saturday. Dickerson tied for the team lead in tackles against SC State with six and has steadily seen his playing time increase over the last three weeks.

After playing well last week, Clifton Geathers will make his first start of the season - and just the second of his career - at defensive end, giving USC a pair of tall d-ends to pursue Hartline relentlessly. With Akeem Auguste still suspended, C.C. Whitlock will make his second consecutive start at cornerback.

KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Mike Hartline, RB Derrick Locke, RB Alfonso Smith, WR Reggie Cobb, WR Chris Matthews, LT Zipp Duncan.

KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Cliff Matthews, DE Devin Taylor, DT Nathan Pepper, OLB Eric Norwood, CB Stephon Gilmore, CB C.C. Whitlock, FS Chris Culliver, SS Darian Stewart.

COACH'S COMMENT: "In South Carolina, we definitely have another challenge. We go from the number one and number two defenses (in the SEC) with Alabama and Florida to the number three defense, which happens to be South Carolina. They are a very active team. We will face the best pass rushers I think that we have seen all year. They flat get after the quarterback, and do a good job at the defensive end position rotating a cast of thousands in there. (Eric) Norwood plays strongside linebacker, weakside linebacker, defensive end, everywhere. And you'd better know where he is because he's a big playmaker. Offensively, they are running the football much better than I can remember South Carolina running it, and they are throwing the ball on play-action as well as dropping back. They are an offense to be reckoned with" - Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks

POSITION COMPARISON:
Quarterback - Edge to USC
Running Back - Slight Edge to USC
Wide Receiver - Slight Edge to USC
Offensive Line - Even
Tight End - Edge to Kentucky
Defensive Line - Edge to USC
Linebacker - Slight Edge to USC
Secondary - Edge to USC
Special teams - Slight Edge to USC.

SYNOPSIS: Death, taxes and USC beating Kentucky in football? Well, it's not exactly Penn State-Temple, but there's no question the Gamecocks have had their way with the Wildcats over the last decade, especially at Williams-Brice Stadium. Obviously, Kentucky is not happy about it but they've had multiple chances to end the streak but haven't been able to get the job done. The Wildcats might believe their program is equal to USC in terms of stature but they haven't proven it on the field. Many people believe UK is better than their 2-2 record indicates. Others aren't so sure. They were fortunate to escape the rivalry game Louisville with a win. UK does have one thing working in their favor - the early afternoon kickoff. As a result, the crowd might not be as fired up as they are for a night game. But temperatures are expected to soar into the low 90's. Kentucky has been practicing in the 60's up there in Lexington for the past couple of weeks. Will the heat eventually catch up to the Wildcats? It could. Also, this is the first true road test of the year for Kentucky: How will they respond to playing in a potentially hostile environment?

PREDICTION: With both of Kentucky's starting cornerbacks injured, the Wildcats are forced to go with a group of inexperienced defensive backs. Will Steve Spurrier attack that weakness? You bet. Look for Stephen Garcia to come out slinging the ball around the field. The guess here is USC will adopt a pass-first, run-second philosophy until the young UK cornerbacks prove they can stop the pass. Don't be surprised if USC QB Stephen Garcia sets a new career high for single game passing yardage. USC will also find a way to neutralize MLB Micah Johnson. But Kentucky simply has too many injuries on defense to keep up. RB Derrick Locke and WR Randall Cobb are talented but UK's quarterback remains Mike Hartline, who has hardly sparkled the last couple of weeks against pretty good defenses. The USC defense looks to put a ton of pressure on Hartline early because history shows he will eventually crack. Eric Norwood and Cliff Matthews coming off the edge? That'll work. Kentucky heads back to Lexington wondering when and if they'll ever beat USC in football again as the Gamecock winning streak over the Wildcats reaches 10.

The Pick: USC 27, Kentucky 13.

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