By: Scott Hood, GamecockCentral.com
: Missouri (3-1) at No. 13 South Carolina (3-1)
: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250), Columbia
: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
: ESPN (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe); Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM In Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Langston Moore); Satellite Radio Sirius 108/XM 190
After an "embarrassing" win over Vanderbilt, South Carolina returns home to Williams-Brice Stadium for a matchup with Missouri, which is looking to bounce back after a startling home loss to Indiana last Saturday that dropped the Tigers from the AP Top 25. USC reaches the halfway mark of its conference schedule, while Mizzou plays its first SEC contest following four nonconference tuneups. These two teams played a classic last year in Columbia, Mo., with the Gamecocks prevailing in double OT, 27-24. Will we witness that same level of excitement this year? ESPN's popular College GameDay program is in town, so Saturday promises to make Columbia, SC, the center of the college football universe.
USC OFFENSE v. MISSOURI DEFENSE
Lost amidst Steve Spurrier's avalanche of negativity following the Vanderbilt game is the reality quarterback Dylan Thompson is enjoying a solid season and is beginning to be recognized as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.
In the last three games, Thompson has completed 66.0 percent of his passes (68-of-103) for 774 yards and seven touchdowns with two interceptions, including a 22-for-34, 237-yard, three touchdown outing at Vanderbilt. His numbers could have been even better except for three or four drops.
After four weeks, he ranks fourth in the SEC averaging 285.0 yards passing with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. Thompson should eclipse the 3,000-yard career passing plateau on Saturday since he needs just 33 yards to become the 13th quarterback in USC history to throw for 3,000 career passing yards.
Thompson will throw against a Missouri secondary that ranks 10th in the conference in pass defense (240.8 ypg). However, the Tigers are tied for second in sacks with 14, so their defensive front seven led by DE Shane Ray has been able to apply consistent pressure on quarterbacks.
However, the Missouri defense has been vulnerable to the big play this season, as Indiana took advantage of some weaknesses in the Tigers' defense last weekend to accumulate 493 total yards, including 252 through the air. Missouri has allowed more than 200 yards in all four games this season and 115+ yards rushing in three of the four games.
With a career-high 10 receptions for 114 yards, did Pharoh Cooper jump to the top of the pile as far as being USC's No. 1 receiver, especially since Shaq Roland struggled? Cooper sits atop USC's receiving chart with 21 receptions for 244 yards and two touchdowns. Cooper will likely battle Missouri CB Aarion Penton for most of the night.
Brandon Wilds (210 yards on 40 carries) exited the Vanderbilt game with an injury, but is now 100 percent healthy (according to Spurrier), so the redshirt junior should again share the carries with Mike Davis (264 yards on 58 carries), who amassed 82 yards on 17 carries last weekend in Nashville and now ranks 22nd on USC's all-time rushing list with 1,722 yards with eight 100-yard games.
Along the offensive front, the "Big Three" of LT Corey Robinson, LG A.J. Cann and RT Brandon Shell have played well for most of the season as the center and right guard spots have been in flux. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott is contemplating starting Clayton Stadnik at center after redshirt freshman Alan Knott struggled at Vanderbilt. Will Sport will make a second straight start at right guard since Cody Waldrop was unable to practice this week because of a knee injury.
The Gamecock O-Line will undoubtedly have its hands full pushing and shoving with one of the best defensive front sevens they will face all season. Senior Markus Golden (10.5 sacks, 19.5 TFL in career; missed the Indiana game with a hamstring injury) and Ray (9.5 TFL in 2014 leads the nation) are one of the best defensive end duos in the SEC, while DT Lucas Vincent has 43 career appearances.
Middle linebacker Michael Scherer leads the SEC in tackles with 41. In the past two weeks, he has 10 tackles vs. UCF and 13 vs. Indiana, and had led the Tigers in tackles in each of the last three games.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS
: QB Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis, RB Brandon Wilds, WR Pharoh Cooper, TE Busta Anderson, LT Corey Robinson, LG A.J. Cann, C Alan Knott.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS
: DE Shane Ray, DE Markus Golden, LB Michael Scherer, LB Kentrell Brothers, CB Aaron Penton, S Ian Simon, S Duron Singleton.
1. USC LT Corey Robinson and RT Brandon Shell vs. MIZZ DE Shane Ray and DE Markus Golden.
2. USC RB Mike Davis vs. MIZZ LB Michael Scherer
3. USC WR Pharoh Cooper vs. MIZZ CB Aaron Penton.
: "They're a well-coached team. Coach (Gary) Pinkel does a super job along with his assistants. Their players are fast, they're quick and they play hard, so it should be a heckuva game. Hopefully, we can get our guys playing at a higher level. We have a lot of guys that play extremely well and some that don't play well. As coaches, we need to get them up to speed. We still believe that we can have a good team this year." - USC head coach Steve Spurrier
MISSOURI OFFENSE vs. USC DEFENSE
As they like to say in the "other" Columbia, Missouri's offense operates at Mauk speed.
Quarterback Maty Mauk has thrown an SEC-leading 14 touchdown passes in four games this season, an average of more than three per game, combining a strong throwing arm with superb athletic ability and elusiveness when he scrambles. Mauk is seventh in the SEC in total offense (273.2 ypg).
Mauk registered career highs in completions (29), pass attempts (48), passing yards (331) and rushing attempts (13) in last week's loss to Indiana. Three weeks ago, he was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week after accounting for six TDs at Toledo.
Mauk is supported by a solid rushing game averaging 185.5 yards per game led by junior RB Russell Hansbrough (119 rushing yards vs. Indiana), who is eighth in the SEC in rushing with an average of 94.3 yards per game (377 total yards) after his fourth 100-yard rushing game of his career last weekend.
Support comes from Marcus Murphy, who has 215 yards on 48 carries. His career high of 94 yards rushing came two weeks ago against UCF.
Wide receivers L'Damian Washington, Marcus Lucas and Dorial Green-Beckham are gone, but the senior trio of Bud Sasser (career-best 12 receptions for 153 yards vs. Indiana), Jimmie Hunt (doubled his career TD catch total with five in 2014) and Darius White (matched career high with five catches vs. Indiana) have filled the void. The threesome has combined for 55 receptions for 796 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Spurrier expressed concern about the USC secondary after the Vanderbilt offense, anemic in the first three games, threw for 223 yards on 15-of-25 passing in last Saturday's win in Nashville. In particular, the Gamecocks struggled breaking on the ball correctly.
As a result, Brison Williams will move back to cornerback after starting at safety against Vanderbilt and recording a critical Pick-6 late in the first half, while true freshman Al Harris Jr. gets the starting nod at the other CB spot. T.J. Gurley and Chaz Elder will start at safety.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS
: QB Maty Mauk, RB Russell Hansbrough, RB Marcus Murphy, WR Bud Sasser, WR Jimmie Hunt, TE Sean Culkin, C Evan Boehm, RT Mitch Morse.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS
: DE Gerald Dixon, DE Darius English, DT J.T. Surratt, OLB Skai Moore, SPR Sharrod Golightly, CB Brison Williams, CB Rico McWilliams.
1. MIZZ QB Maty Mauk vs. USC DE Darius English
2. MIZZ RB Russell Hansbrough vs. USC MLB Kaiwan Lewis
3. MIZZ WR Bud Sasser vs. USC CB Brison Williams.
: "South Carolina is a very good football team. I've got great respect for head coach Steve Spurrier and what he has done there. It's a great place to play (Williams-Brice Stadium). We opened up there a few years ago and it's a great environment. We're entering the SEC schedule now and we're excited about that. We're going to work real hard and play our best." - Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel
Quarterback - Even
Running Back - Edge to USC
Wide Receiver - Even
Offensive Line - Slight Edge to USC
Tight End - Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Edge to Missouri
Linebacker - Edge to Missouri
Secondary - Even
Special Teams - Even
: College GameDay. Prime time TV on ESPN. Rowdy sellout crowd. Two evenly matched teams. The scene is set for another SEC classic. The winner of this game controls its own destiny in the SEC East with Missouri eyeing its second straight divisional title. USC has played one of the toughest schedules in the country (three Top 25 teams) and enduring those tests could prove beneficial to the Gamecocks. They have won 12 straight games and 20 of the last 24 against SEC East rivals. OK, kickoff coverage is a concern heading into this game, but new players and extra preparation this week should get that unit squared away. The key matchup is USC's wide receivers against the Missouri secondary and the Tigers have given up an abnormally high number of big plays this season. Ideal situation for Cooper, Roland, etc.? Perhaps.
: Just like the Georgia game two weeks ago, where this game is being played should have a key role in determining the winner. Remember, USC was on the verge of losing last year's tilt in the Show Me State until Connor Shaw came off the bench and heroically led an improbable fourth quarter comeback and then the win in overtime. USC has won 20 of 21 games at Williams-Brice Stadium and the atmosphere should be electric again with a 7 p.m. kickoff. Missouri has won six straight road games, but those victories have come at Indiana, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Toledo. Except for Athens, none of those other stadiums would accurately be described as intimidating. Regardless, the Tigers are again a solid team, especially at quarterback, running back and the defensive front seven. They will give the Gamecocks all they want, but the home crowd and a few big plays by the USC offense will be the difference.