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USC, Tennessee share some of the same struggles

Tennessee Head Coach Philip Fulmer, left, and USC Head Coach Steve Spurrier
Tennessee Head Coach Philip Fulmer, left, and USC Head Coach Steve Spurrier

South Carolina and Tennessee almost have been mirror images on offense.

Both began the season breaking in new quarterbacks, and both have flip-flopped back and forth.

Add the lack of a consistent running game and there is little wonder the two are in the bottom half of the SEC offensive statistics going into Saturday’s game at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“They had to break in a new quarterback in Nick Stephens, who hasn’t played a whole lot,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said during his weekly teleconference Sunday. “Tennessee’s defense has played well all year like ours has, but, offensively, they have struggled. We have struggled running the ball and making some plays here lately (just like Tennessee).”

The two teams rank at the bottom of the conference in rushing yards per game. South Carolina is last, averaging 100.2 yards but the Volunteers are barely better (113.5 ypg.).

Being unable to run with consistency has hurt both teams. The Gamecocks’ season-high is 172 yards against Wofford. Tennessee rushed for 266 yards in a win against Alabama-Birmingham but was held to 1 yard and 36 yards in losses to Georgia and Alabama, respectively.

“The lack of a running game just kills us,” Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. “The running game has to get up to speed and consistent. I thought after the Mississippi State game we had made some strides. We are past the understanding part of it. It’s the execution of different players at different times.”

The difference Saturday could be that the Gamecocks (5-3. 2-3 SEC) have found a way to make plays late in the game. They rallied for victories on the road against Mississippi and Kentucky. In contrast, the Volunteers (3-5, 1-4) have faltered in the late going.

The defenses also resemble each other. Both rank in the top four of the league in yards allowed per game and have given offenses fits.

With all the talk about Fulmer being on the hot seat, Spurrier knows the Gamecocks will get the Vols’ best shot. He figures whichever team can get the offense on track first will be in control.

“Tennessee is a big strong team like they always are, and they probably feel like they need to win out,” Spurrier said. “They probably feel like they can certainly beat anybody they play. We haven’t scored a whole bunch of points against anybody. We could, but we haven’t done it yet. I don’t think Tennessee has scored a whole bunch either. So we’re two offenses that have struggled a bit.”

Garcia remains the starter. Spurrier said he didn’t think a change at quarterback would happen this week, at least not at starter. Spurrier expects Stephen Garcia to make his second start in a row.

“Stephen had a very good game against Kentucky but struggled a little bit in the second half (against LSU), but maybe we could have helped him more,” Spurrier said. “We haven’t made any decisions on changing quarterbacks, and we certainly think Stephen has a lot of potential. Whoever we think can best help us win the game is who we’ve got to play. Right now, we think Stephen is the guy. We’re going to give him a chance to play better than he did in the second half last week.”

Cook ailing. It is uncertain if Gamecocks’ leading receiver Jared Cook will play against the Vols. Spurrier said Sunday that Cook reinjured his right foot during practice last week, and they would have to see if the junior tight end would be available for practice this week.

Cook first suffered the injury three weeks ago against Mississippi.

“Jared fell on it wrong in practice last week, so we’ll see how it is this week,” Spurrier said. “It’s a sprain or something, but he is getting treatment, so, hopefully, he’ll be OK. Weslye Saunders is ready to go if not.”