No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks at Vanderbilt Commodores
The 119th season of South Carolina football begins on Thursday when the No. 9 Gamecocks travel to Nashville, Tenn., to square off with potential upstart and SEC East rival Vanderbilt. USC has dominated the series and carries a three-game winning streak into the season-opening contest. This is the 22nd all-time meeting between USC and Vanderbilt, with the Gamecocks holding a 17-4 (.810 winning percentage) advantage, 9-2 in Music City.
USC OFFENSE vs. VANDERBILT DEFENSE
In Columbia, Marcus Lattimore has run the football in practices and scrimmages. He's 100 percent healthy and, in the words of Steve Spurrier, "ready to go." Certainly, he hasn't shied away from contact. Nationally, though, concerns still surround Lattimore and his readiness more than 10 months after suffering a serious knee injury and months of rehab. Those questions, though, could evaporate after his first couple of carries.
Lattimore rightfully remains the centerpiece of the USC offense, and should receive 20-25 carries against the Commodores, who ranked fourth in the SEC in rushing defense last season. Even Vanderbilt coach James Franklin succinctly summed up the No. 1 task for the Vanderbilt defense in the game when he proclaimed, "We have to stop Marcus Lattimore," earlier this week. If they can't, USC will win. The Gamecocks are 8-0 when Lattimore rushes for more than 100 yards, so if he reaches the century mark, this game is in the "W" column for USC. Senior Kenny Miles should get about 10 carries in a reserve role, with freshman Mike Davis waiting for his chance.
The fact that USC prefers to run the football sets the stage for an intriguing battle in the trenches with Gamecock center T.J. Johnson, guards A.J. Cann and Ronald Patrick (first career start) ready to engage a pair of fifth-year seniors at defensive tackle - Rob Lohr (Nagurski and Lombardi Award watch lists) and Colt Nichter.
If USC is able to block well enough up front and Lattimore can reach the second level of the Vanderbilt defense on a consistent basis, he'll be able to inflict significant damage against a rebuilding Commodore linebacker corps that will certainly miss Chris Marve, one of the top performers in the SEC at his position when he was in Nashville.
But Vanderbilt must also focus on quarterback Connor Shaw, as well, because the junior signal-caller is capable of beating the Commodores with either his arm or his legs. If Shaw is able to get on the perimeter and churn out yards with his feet, watch out. Spurrier hasn't hidden his happiness with Shaw throughout preseason camp, and if he plays as well as he did in the final three games, Vanderbilt's task of containing the USC offense becomes even tougher.
However, Spurrier is still Spurrier, meaning he wants to see an improved passing attack. Next to the health of Lattimore, the most often-asked question in Columbia during the offseason has been who will replace Alshon Jeffery as the go-to wide receiver. Right now, one guy may not fill the role. Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and D.L. Moore will start and, according to USC wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., should be on the field for the majority of the snaps. Behind them are Damiere Byrd, DeAngelo Smith and Shaq Roland. How much action will Roland, the reigning "Mr. Football" in the Palmetto State, see in his first game? Good question.
The revamped passing game for USC will test a Vanderbilt secondary that returns two starters - senior cornerback Trey Wilson and junior safety Javon Marshall. But a bigger story is who isn't playing anymore in the Commodores' defensive backfield. Gone are All-SEC cornerback Casey Hayward and three-year starting safety Sean Richardson.
In addition to receivers possessing the ability to get open, a productive passing game also requires effective blocking up front. Left tackle Brandon Shell debuts for the Gamecocks. He has the size (6-foot-6, 331 pounds) and skill (great agility) to become an all-SEC offensive tackle in the future. However, for the first time in years, he will be asked to pass-block, something he didn't have to do at run-dominated Goose Creek High School.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders, WR D.L. Moore, TE Justice Cunningham, LT Brandon Shell, C T.J. Johnson
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Johnell Thomas, DT Rob Lohr, NT Colt Nichter, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson
1. USC running back Marcus Lattimore vs. the Vanderbilt defensive front seven
2. USC offensive linemen T.J. Johnson, A.J. Cann and Ronald Patrick vs. Vanderbilt defensive tackle Rob Lohr and nose tackle Colt Nichter
3. USC wide receiver Ace Sanders vs. Vanderbilt cornerback Trey Wilson
COACH'S COMMENT: "Our guys realize that this is a big game for us, about the same as the Georgia or Tennessee game. Eastern Division conference rivals. Hopefully we're ready to play well. I think we are. Only time will tell. The word out of Vanderbilt is they're ready to play very well. We know that. We have absolutely no excuses if we don't play well. We've had a lot of practices and we're pretty much injury-free." - Spurrier
VANDERBILT OFFENSE vs. USC DEFENSE
Prior to quarterback Jordan Rodgers - the younger brother of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers - taking the reins of the Vanderbilt offense midway through last season, the Commodores were downright awful. Vanderbilt showed significant improvement under Rodgers, who accounted for 67 percent of its passing yards and accumulated nearly 2,000 total yards in seven starts, a stretch when Vanderbilt averaged 31 points per game.
Rodgers, a fifth-year senior and junior-college transfer, is considered a solid dual-threat quarterback and his style is similar in many ways to Shaw's. Vanderbilt hopes the offense will be even more productive in 2012 because nearly all of the principal contributors return from a year ago. Last year's offense scored 347 points, the most by a Vanderbilt team in a single season since 1915, and scored 21 or more points in seven straight games, a first since 1948.
The biggest name on offense is running back Zac Stacy, the SEC's top returning rusher with a school record 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns to his credit in 2011. He was named second-team running back by the coaches and writers, and is on the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch lists. Surely, the duel between Lattimore and the workhorse Stacy is one of the best storylines of the game.
Warren Norman has battled injuries in the past two years after earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2009. Norman, Wes Tate and heralded freshman Brian Kimbrow are involved in the mix as well.
They will try to run the football against a USC defensive line that features defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor crashing in from the edge and tackles Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau clogging up the middle. Behind them is a senior-laden group of linebackers led by Reginald Bowens in the middle and Shaq Wilson on the outside with DeVonte Holloman at spur.
But all eyes watching the USC defense will be focused squarely on cornerbacks Jimmy Legree, Victor Hampton and Ahmad Christian, who must replace the departed trio of Stephon Gilmore (No. 10 pick in the NFL draft), C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett.
Right now, the Gamecock cornerbacks are considered the weak link in a defense some consider just as talented as last year's unit that finished No. 3 nationally in total defense.
Spurrier mentioned wide receiver Jordan Matthews as arguably Vanderbilt's top offensive threat. The senior is coming off the best season by a Commodore receiver since Earl Bennett in 2007. Matthews averaged 110 receiving yards over the final six games last season, so he and Rodgers developed excellent chemistry. Overall, he had 41 receptions (34 in the final seven games) for 783 yards and five touchdowns in 2011.
The best solution with legitimate concerns at cornerback? An active pass-rush. Offensive tackles Wesley Johnson and Andrew Bridges will clearly have their hands full trying to keep Clowney and Taylor away from Rodgers. If USC's twin tower duo is able to consistently penetrate the backfield and harass Rodgers before he is able to look downfield and pick out a receiver, it could be a frustrating night for the Vanderbilt offense.
USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has promised a more aggressive scheme than what Ellis Johnson had, so he could dial up some blitzes involving Wilson, Holloman and/or free safety D.J. Swearinger. Ward will bring the heat.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OL Wesley Johnson, OL Andrew Bridges
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor, LB Shaq Wilson, LB Reginald Bowens, CB Jimmy Legree, CB Victor Hampton, FS D.J. Swearinger
1. Vanderbilt offensive tackles Wesley Johnson and Andrew Bridges vs. USC defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor
2. Vanderbilt wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause vs. USC cornerbacks Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton
3. Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy vs. USC linebackers Reginald Bowens and Shaq Wilson
COACH'S COMMENT: "Everybody in our building is much more comfortable. Year 2 is completely different from Year 1, not even close. It's really the little things, not just that they know the offense, defense and special teams. It's the expectation and how we practice. From top to bottom, we're light years ahead of where we were last year. Have we closed the gap that we need to close? We've taken some strides, but we still have a long way to go as a program. But I'm much more confident this year" - Franklin
SYNOPSIS: Vanderbilt has understandably hyped up the game because this is the first time since 2008 that the Commodores will appear on ESPN, meaning the three hours between 7-10 p.m. on Thursday represents a golden opportunity for Franklin and school officials to showcase the historically downtrodden program to a national audience. From a talent perspective, this is not your older brother's Vanderbilt team. The Commodores have some talented players, just not enough. USC is clearly the better team from top to bottom, especially on defense where players such as Clowney, Taylor and Swearinger are primed for sensational seasons. Offensively, the combination of Shaw and Lattimore could be tough to stop. In many ways, this USC-Vanderbilt clash is reminiscent of 2004, when Commodores quarterback Jay Cutler and a large group of returning players dominated the pregame headlines. Many people picked Vanderbilt to win the game. Instead, USC won easily, 31-6. History could repeat itself.
PREDICTION: Purely from an emotional perspective, Vanderbilt should start off on a high note. In fact, don't be surprised if the Commodores seize the upper hand in the early going. But football games are 60-minute affairs and the team that executes the best usually wins the game. The formula for playing on the road in the SEC is simple and no secret - run the football, stop the run, play solid special teams and don't turn the ball over. USC is prepared from a talent and scheme standpoint to play well in all those areas. Spurrier hasn't lost an opening game as a head coach since 1989 and USC hasn't lost a season-opener since 1999. Vanderbilt will provide a good test, but neither streak will come to a halt this year.
Pick: USC 31, VANDERBILT 17
©2012 GamecockCentral.com. All rights reserved.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Going into their second season together, James Franklin says his Vanderbilt Commodores are so confident they feel they could beat the NFL's Green Bay Packers with a home-field advantage.
Well, the Packers aren't coming to help his Commodores open the season Thursday night. The ninth-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks are, and Franklin and his Commodores are ready for the challenge, expecting to finish with a win.
The coach says "belief is a very powerful thing, and we have that right now."
South Carolina comes in having won eight straight and 9 of its last 10 against SEC East opponents. The Gamecocks also have won 12 consecutive season openers, and they beat Vanderbilt 21-3 last season holding the Commodores to a measly 77 yards of offense.
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