Kentucky offensive line coach Mike Summers recognizes his unit has a tough task ahead of it on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium as they battle one of the top defensive lines in the entire country.
"These guys are really special," Summers said about South Carolina on Thursday after practice. "They're special individual players. They win one-on-one battles. It makes their defensive schemes so much better because they don't have to compromise their coverage to get pressure on the quarterback.
"That has to be a really nice feeling for Coach Ward to be able to call defenses and not have to worry about how the opponent reacts relative to the pressure."
Summers is now in his third season as the offensive line coach for Kentucky. So, he watched last season's 54-3 loss from the sidelines as the USC defensive front dominated, allowing just 79 yards rushing and 17 yards passing to the Wildcats.
"They're a tremendous front. Each week, we're going to face a great front. That's what this league is. But these guys are a notch above. Certainly, we're going to have to play our best game for us to have a chance to move the ball. But we're excited about that. We're excited about the challenge of having to play against really good players. We went down and competed well against their front at Florida. I think we'll do the same this week."
Going into last year's meeting, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was sort of an unknown commodity because he was only a true freshman. But he has erupted as a sophomore and along with senior end Devin Taylor and defensive tackles Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau, is one of four parts of a ruthlessly effective defensive front.
"A year or two ago, Taylor was the guy we were all focusing on," Summers said. "These other guys are good enough that it keeps you from being able to work everything towards them. They're strong at every position. They push the pocket and they're strong in the run game. Because of that, they're playing very good defense."
DIFFERENT PASSING ATTACK: Missouri relied mostly upon short, intermediate and play-action passes to move the ball downfield. USC defended the Tigers effectively, holding them to 146 yards passing. Kentucky, though, presents a different problem for the USC secondary. Quarterback Maxwell Smith likes to take shots down the field, so the Gamecocks should be tested more vertically this week.
"All of Kentucky's quarterbacks have strong, live arms," USC secondary coach Grady Brown said earlier this week. "They'll throw the ball far down field. So we have to make sure we're in position to defend the deep ball. They definitely want to throw the ball to establish the run. They have a corps of receivers, young and old, that can run and get downfield on you."
The secondary should be bolstered by the return of senior cornerback Akeem Auguste, who is expected to play about 15 snaps in his 2012 debut.
"You want to take it slow with Akeem," Brown said. "That's the mistake that happened last time going into Vanderbilt prep. He wanted to play and we wanted him to play. He got in there, but he wasn't ready to go. We'll ease him in there and get him ready. He'll definitely play some and get ready to go as the season goes along."
"It's huge from a depth standpoint. He helps us out a lot from special teams to defense. Just his experience. He's always in a good mood and always has a smile on his face. Just having him around makes life that much easier."
The addition of Auguste means Brown has four steady, reliable players at cornerback - Jimmy Legree, Victor Hampton, Ahmad Christian and Auguste. That means some tough decisions lie ahead for Brown with regards to dividing up playing time.
"Whoever is playing the best and whoever practices well that week will play most of the reps," Brown said.
Brown was pleased with how Hampton, a redshirt sophomore, performed in the last game. He defended a couple of long pass attempts by Missouri, both of which fell incomplete.
"This past game was huge for him," Brown said. "He played a very disciplined game. His eyes were in the right place. He took care of his assignments and his responsibilities. The stats may not show it, but he is doing a good job for us."
BLITZ MENTALITY: USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing said this week that the Gamecocks have rarely blitzed in the first four games. Instead, they've chosen mostly to allow their front four to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback and allow the remaining seven defenders to drop back into coverage or play the run.
"We've only blitzed twice this year," Lawing said earlier this week. "A blitz is an overload. We blitzed once against Vanderbilt and once against UAB. When you bring five people, that's a pressure, when you bring six that's a pressure. Sometimes seven is a pressure. If they have five blockers and we have six guys coming that's a blitz. If they have six blockers and we have seven guys coming, that's a blitz. We teach our players the difference because they have to understand that when it's a blitz, it's a blitz mentality. Somebody is coming free. With a pressure, you have to break somebody down."
Lawing said the USC pass rush has mostly been four players at any one time, typically three less than last year. Clowney has been twisting more this season, and getting more pressure in the process. Right now, USC is second in the SEC in sacks with 15. Some of those sacks have come out of the unique 'Rabbits' package in which Lawing puts four defensive linemen on the field.
"I have four guys that are athletes and it creates problems for an offensive line when you can do that," Lawing said.
GAME PREDICTIONS: Here are the predictions and comments for the USC-Kentucky game by some nationally prominent writers and/or websites covering the SEC:
Edward Aschoff (ESPN.com): South Carolina 45, Kentucky 10. "The Gamecocks are really clicking right now, while Kentucky is struggling to get much going at all. Expect South Carolina's offense to continue on its current roll."
Chris Low (ESPN.com): South Carolina 34, Kentucky 14. "Nobody needs to remind the Gamecocks what happened during their last trip to the Bluegrass. Of course, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke are no longer around for the Wildcats, who will be hard-pressed to win an SEC game this season."
CollegeFootballNews.com - South Carolina 38, Kentucky 10. "Don't be shocked if there's a little bit of a look-ahead factor for the Gamecocks with Georgia up next. The defense will keep Kentucky from making any sort of a big run, but the USC offense is going to be a bit sloppy early before turning it on in the second half."
Bruce Feldman (CBSSports.com) - South Carolina 42, Kentucky 13. "Rival coaches say Jadeveon Clowney has made huge improvement this season and is downright scary, becoming more of a physical presence, sparking the rest of a loaded D-line. That's bad news for a Kentucky team that got shut out last week at Florida."
Phil Steele - South Carolina 32, Kentucky 14.
WEATHER FORECAST: Beautiful fall weather in Lexington is expected for the game on Saturday night. Temperatures in the mid 60's with sunny skies and a zero percent chance of precipitation are expected at kickoff. It will remain clear for the rest of the evening, though temperatures will fall into the high 50's by the end of the game around 10 p.m.
SEC SCHEDULE (Saturday):
Missouri at Central Florida, noon (FSN)
Arkansas at Texas A&M, 12:21 p.m. (SEC Network)
Tennessee at Georgia, 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
Towson at LSU, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
South Carolina at Kentucky, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
Ole Miss at Alabama, 9:15 p.m. (ESPN)
(All Times Eastern)
OPEN: Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt.
SEC EAST STANDINGS: Florida 3-0, USC 2-0, Georgia 2-0, Kentucky 0-1, Tennessee 0-1, Missouri 0-2, Vanderbilt 0-2.
* Lawing on defensive tackle J.T. Surratt: "J.T. has got a lot of pop to him. He was a defensive end in high school, so he can run and he's athletic. He did well (in his first game after returning from a three-game suspension). J.T. can be a good player. He did not have an extensive football background before he got here. So, it's been a learning process. He'll tell you that everything he has learned about football he has learned here at South Carolina." Surratt saw action in the Missouri game when Phillip Dukes fractured his thumb two weeks ago.
* USC is 2-0 in SEC play for just the fourth time in the school's 21-year history in the conference. Last year's team started 2-0 and finished with a best-ever 6-2 mark in league play.
* Steve Spurrier is 59-35 (.628) in eight seasons as the Gamecocks head coach. If USC wins Saturday, he will become the second head coach in school history to register 60 career wins.
* The longest streaks of being ranked in the AP Top 25: Alabama (70 weeks), LSU (54), Oregon (50), Oklahoma (38), South Carolina (36) and Stanford (36).
* USC has allowed one touchdown and four field goals in eight trips by the opponents inside the red zone in four games. The lone TD yielded by USC came in the final minute of the 31-10 rout over Missouri.
* Kentucky has played a total of 20 freshmen this season, including 12 true freshmen, putting them among the top 10 teams in the nation for playing the most true frosh.
* Kentucky had two players named to the pre-season All-SEC team by the coaches: WR La'Rod King and OL Larry Warford.
* ESPN.com named USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott as one of five promising SEC assistants with a good chance of becoming candidates for head coaching gigs: "When Steve Spurrier does decide to step down as the Gamecocks' head coach, don't be surprised if Elliott gets serious consideration. He's been a big part of the Gamecocks' success since coming over from Appalachian State and has helped Spurrier re-invent himself a little bit offensively with the zone read package. This is Elliott's third season at South Carolina, which has finally found some continuity in the offensive line after struggling up front in the early years under Spurrier. It's also no coincidence that the Gamecocks are 24-7 since Elliott joined the staff."
* ESPN.com says one of the things to watch in the SEC this weekend is Marcus Lattimore's strength: "We still haven't seen the Marcus Lattimore of old, but slowly he's starting to get stronger and stronger. He shed his knee brace last week and probably ran the hardest he has all season in the Gamecocks' win over Missouri. He carried the ball 21 times for 85 yards, scored two touchdowns and caught seven passes for another 60 yards. The hesitation we saw in some of his earlier runs seems to be disappearing and the more confident he is, the better he is. That has to be a scary thought for defenses, and Kentucky could be just another victim for Lattimore as he continues his comeback."
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