In the midst of our fall of discontent, Kentucky Wildcats Football has the inconvenient indignity of hosting arch-enemy Steve Spurrier and his #6 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks. Needless to say, playing a highly ranked opponent with a coach who loves to run up a score is not the remedy for the ailing Cats' woes.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of those. For today, I'll set aside the overall direction of the program and the overwhelming conclusion that Kentucky will be playing under a different Head Coach next year. That is a whole separate post and, frankly, one I haven't been able to bring myself to write.
As for this week itself, problems abound. Max Smith, one of the few bright spots on the team this year, will apparently be playing with a separated shoulder and obviously not at 100%. Unfortunately, the injured Smith is still far and away Kentucky's best option at QB. If he cannot play or continue to play, Jalen Whitlow is likely to get the call.
If that were the only injury news for Kentucky, things would be bad enough. But it isn't. CoShik Williams, who opened the year as the Cats' first string running back, will not be available. The problems shift over to the defense, where safety Ashley Lowery will not play, and Mister Cobble may be limited by a strange virus that has impacted his musculoskeletal system. The loss of Lowery is a blow, as he has been one of the few bright spots in the Kentucky secondary this year. One blessing is that this will move Martavious Neloms back to safety, where he played very well last year, and away from cornerback, where he is horribly miscast.
Freshman Cody Quinn played well in relief of Cartier Rice last week and will be asked to step up at corner.
Of course, the injury information we got from the team last week turned out to be wildly inaccurate, so I'd keep an eye out on all of these situations as the game unfolds.
While all the injury news is disconcerting, discussing it may be dancing on the head of a pin. The fact is, a full strength Kentucky team would have a difficult time making this game competitive. Here's why:
WHEN KENTUCKY HAS THE BALL
The key for Kentucky on offense tonight is very simple. The Cats need to protect Max Smith, not just giving him time to throw, but keeping his jersey clean in the process. I don't think for a minute that South Carolina will be out to hurt Smith intentionally, but the fact is, one good blow or a shot to the turf on his right shoulder will probably end his night. As luck would have it, the Gamecocks are uniquely qualified to bring this pain. Javedeon Clowney is an athletic freak who might be the best defensive end in the country. The rest of the front four, including DT Kelsey Quarles, are all solid players who move quickly.
Joker is well aware that a loss of Smith will not only submarine this game, but would extinguish the already dim hopes of salvaging the season. I expect the Cats to try to run the ball, stick with short drops in the passing game, and maybe even mix in some Wildcat to give Smith's delicate shoulder a rest. Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George should get their share of work.
Kentucky's offense will have to move the chains and keep from turning the ball over to have any chance to keep the game competitive. In addition to the offensive line, possession receivers like Aaron Boyd and Ronnie Shields need to have big games. If UK gets the dropsies today, it will be an even longer afternoon than it might otherwise be.
WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL
Joker said it best earlier in the year when talking about his defense. Paraphrased, "we don't have to stop everything but we have to stop something". With the Gamecocks, Kentucky is going to have to pick its poison. Conner Shaw is a capable QB, but the real bell cow of South Carolina's offense is RB Marcus Lattimore. Though he has run for a rather pedestrian 320 yards in four games, the junior has hit paydirt six times and is still a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. For the last two years, USClite has killed the Cats with Lattimore running wheel routes out of the backfield, often covering him one on one with an overmatched DE or OLB. If Rick Minter and Co. haven't gameplanned to stop that play, not only will this be a clowning, but the boo birds will be out in full force.
Shaw has a number of targets, including Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington, who've produced in the past but have had quiet years so far. Tight End Rory Anderson leads the Gamecocks with three receiving TDs.
Kentucky's defense appeared much improved against Florida, with Quinn and a number of other freshmen seeing significant time. I'm glad to see Neloms move back to safety today. He's just better there. Dakotah Tyler should see a additional time at the other safety spot, as he appears to have outplayed Mikie Benton in the earlygoing.
With the exception of Cobble's issues, Kentucky still has their horses up front. The problem is, even Cobble's presence won't be enough. The Cats have been gashed on the line all season, and there is no reason to believe that will not continue this evening.
I'd look for Kentucky to put an extra man in the box, hope that is enough to slow down Lattimore, and let Shaw try to beat them. I don't expect it will be enough.
Two years ago, Kentucky pulled off the biggest upset of Joker Philips's tenure against the Gamecocks. Last year's game was a debacle, with the Cats losing 54-3. Sadly, tonight should resemble the latter much more than the former.
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