John at Garnet and Black Attack thoughtfully asked me to do a Q&A exchange with him, which of course I was very glad to do. John took over GABA from cocknfire last year, when SB Nation tapped him to do the outstanding SEC blog, Team Speed Kills. It is always pure pleasure working with both these guys.
The South Carolina streak against UK is, of course, a popular subject, and John explores that a bit in his questions to me, which you can find on GABA here. Myself, while the streak means a lot to me, I think it has become a bit of a distraction for both the fans and the team. These things sometimes happen in college football for no good reason, and I think at some point you just have to note it, address it briefly and move on. Steve Spurrier, in comments to the media recently, put it this way:
"One of the Kentucky (media) asked me about that and I said, ‘Obviously, at Florida, normally we had the better team almost every time we played them.' Here, I don't know that we've been; it's pretty even. ... We've seemed to get the good turnovers and get the good breaks in the close games."
I think The Visor gets this pretty well right. I don't think it's fair to say that USC has been lucky -- Rather, I would say that they have done a better job of taking advantage of the good fortune that has come their way. It isn't as though UK has been spat upon by the football gods in our games with USC. For the most part, though, we have assisted in authoring this nine-year streak by untimely fumbles and general carelessness. But the Gamecocks deserve all the credit for turning UK's miscues and bad days into nine years of futility for Kentucky. That's just how losing streaks go.
So without further ado, let's get to the Q&A:
South Carolina is second only to Georgia in passing proficiency in the second half of games, but only 8th in the first half. Why do you think that is, and how do you think it will affect the game against the Wildcats on Saturday?
Hard to say. Part of the issue is that we've been a "possession" team for the most part so far. We don't make a lot of big plays, but we do move the ball efficiently, which keeps the opposing defense on the field. In the second half, that begins to work in our favor as the opposing defense wears out. That's when our passing game and offense in general starts to really shine.
I think you'll see something like that happen in this game. The defenses will likely control the first half. Both offenses will move the ball a little better in the second half, but with Kentucky struggling with turnovers and injuries on defense, Carolina's defense will take advantage of a turnover or two and the offense will begin to move the ball effectively against a depleted UK defense. I hope.
According to my calculations, UK has played the 47th toughest schedule so far, and USC has played the 97th toughest. I think it's safe to say that UK is "battle tested," even if they've lost all the major battles so far, and won only the minor ones. How do you think the schedule each team has played so far will impact the game?
Well, first of all, while 47th seems right for the Cats, 97th seems a little low for the Gamecocks. We have played three teams that were in bowls last year. We haven't, of course, played Florida and Alabama, but at the same time we haven't played anyone as bad as Miami or Louisville, either. All in all, I'm not sure that I think the 'battle tested' category really comes into play here. Kentucky has played tougher teams, but Carolina has played some pretty tough teams, too, and Carolina, unlike Kentucky, knows what it's like to be in a close game and win in that situation. In other words, Carolina has more experience in games like the one this one will be. It works both ways.
I do think, though, that the teams Kentucky has played should in some ways prepare them for this game. Alabama runs a fairly similar offense to ours. We rely on the pass and the shotgun a little more than they do, but both teams generally run traditional sets that seek balance. The Kentucky defense played well against Alabama at times, so it should be prepared to play well against Carolina, too.
On the other hand, Kentucky has yet to play a tough road game, which may work against the 'Cats when they come to Columbia. This is a day game, so the crowd likely won't be quite as wild as they were last time you visited Columbia, but dealing with the noise for the first time will be a challenge.
Stephen Garcia totally passes the "look" test for an SEC quarterback, yet his QB rating so far is only 126.28. What has been holding Garcia back? Can he "find it" against UK, and if so, how?
Garcia has been a marvel in the short passing game this year. However, his ypa aren't high, and he hasn't thrown for a lot of touchdowns. That hurts his rating. It's also worth noting that he's good on his feet, which doesn't factor into his rating but certainly distinguishes him as a QB.
The key for Garcia to take the next step, I think, is for him to become more precise in his deep vertical game. He's usually been slightly off on longer throws, which hurts his ypa and his number of TDs. He threw a nice 40 yard strike to Moe Brown in our last game, so maybe we'll see him do better there from here on out.
The other thing that's holding him back is receiver play and penalties. As you may have noticed, our receivers have bungled a few catchable balls, and we've had several quality plays brought back due to penalties. That has to stop for Garcia's numbers and this offense in general to move forward.
UK presents an interesting opportunity for Garcia to show his stuff. UK will be without its top corners. My thinking is that UK will utilize the safeties to help out the young corners, which should keep the USC passing game from really getting wild early on. However, I think we'll try to run and throw underneath to get UK out of that zone. If we can do that--and it's a big if--then the safeties will scoot up, and Garcia will have a chance to strike deep. We'll see if he's up to the task.
Derrick Locke leads the SEC in all-purpose yards by a substantial margin. Considering the veteran, stout UK offensive line, how do the Gamecocks stop him from continuing his 173 yards/game clip when the higher rated defenses of Florida and Alabama couldn't?
Well, I don't mean to be persnickety, but the fact that Kentucky has received lots of kicks has definitely benefited Locke's all-purpose yards per game. I also wouldn't call Locke's performance against the Gators a very good one. He averaged less than 3 ypc on the ground and wouldn't have gotten so many return yards if Kentucky hadn't given up so many touchdowns.
Locke is, though, a quality back and return man, as he showed more clearly against Alabama. I also think Locke is a dangerous threat to USC. You've probably heard about our kickoff coverage troubles, and a guy like Locke could certainly gash us. I also think Locke and Kentucky can run the ball against us. The key, though, will be for Mike Hartline to prove that we have to respect him and the passing game. Early on, I would expect you'll see us focus on stopping the run by crowding the box, thus daring Kentucky to throw. If Kentucky does that, it'll open things up for Locke and company. If Hartline can't hit his throws, Locke can expect to see a swarm of Gamecocks linebackers and safeties swarming in on him every time he gets the ball.
Kentucky is currently 3rd in sacks allowed, and USC is currently second in sacks. Who wins that battle on Saturday and why?
I definitely think Kentucky's line is capable of slowing our pass rush down. Moreover, with Akeem Auguste out of the game, we probably won't get as many coverage sacks as we've gotten in the past. That said, Eric Norwood and Cliff Matthews are capable of producing pressure on just about any team, so you can expect us to make at least a little noise. I also think Ellis Johnson is about the best in the business for calling a well-timed secondary blitz, so you can expect him to dial up a play that works from time to time. In other words, I don't necessarily think either team will "win" this matchup; we'll do some good things, but your line will keep us from doing them quite as often as have against other teams.
Predict the outcome.
I see a close game through the first half, with the Gamecocks pulling away late after a Kentucky turnover or two and some solid offense against a worn out Kentucky defense. I'll say 24-13 USC.
Thanks so much, as always, to John for doing the Q&A with us, and be sure to visit Garnet and Black Attack early and often as we move towards the big game on Saturday.