Speaking with reporters after Thursday’s practice, Ellis Johnson downplayed the loss of free safety Chris Culliver, who was benched because of a shoulder injury and an incident Monday when he walked out of practice.
“Cully didn’t play well last week,” said Johnson, USC’s assistant head coach for defense. “So you say we’re going to miss him. We ain’t going to miss him with a bad shoulder.”
Johnson did not try to minimize the absence of defensive end Cliff Matthews.
No one around the Gamecocks’ program has tried to.
USC will wake up Saturday morning in Fayetteville, roll out of bed for the 11:21 a.m. local kickoff, and prepare to face a quarterback Johnson called the SEC’s best pocket passer running a “well-conceived” offense – again, Johnson’s words – that averages just under 300 passing yards a game.
And the Gamecocks’ highest-energy player has had his arm in a sling all week.
USC has plenty of capable defensive players besides Matthews. The talents of linebacker Eric Norwood need no further rehashing, and defensive backs old (Darian Stewart) and young (Stephon Gilmore, C.C. Whitlock, Akeem Auguste) have helped the Gamecocks maintain the nation’s third-ranked pass defense.
But you’d feel a lot better as a Gamecock fan knowing Matthews would be screaming off the edge Saturday at Ryan Mallett, or chasing down a ball-carrier on the opposite side of the field with his short-cropped hair on fire.
But Matthews is out until at least the Clemson game, so it will fall on other players to take a stand Saturday – namely, Stephen Garcia and the five big guys in front of him.
It says here the Gamecocks will need 30-plus points to win Saturday – a number certainly within reach given the Razorbacks’ struggles defending the pass. If an offensive line missing left tackle Jarriel King (post-concussion) can give Garcia time, the right-hander should have a big day.
If the Gamecocks’ defense can contribute a score or at least shorten the field by forcing a turnover in Hog territory, all the better.
But will it be enough?
The lead-up to this game feels like the Gamecocks’ 2007 trip to Arkansas. As is the case this year, USC’s ’07 defense was beginning to wear down by the first week in November, with injuries to a couple of key players (cornerback Captain Munnerlyn made it only a couple of snaps that night before sitting down with a foot injury).
What transpired was an SEC record-tying performance by Darren McFadden, who gashed the Gamecocks for an incredible 323 rushing yards in the Hogs’ 48-36 victory.
The Razorbacks won’t have a 300-yard rusher this year. But they might have a 300-yard passer.
Arkansas 31, USC 27