Things are looking up for South Carolina’s run game.
Sure, that’s the only way things could look considering the Gamecocks still are at the bottom of the SEC in rushing with 106.9 yards per game, but it’s notable that for the first time this season there’s at least some optimism headed into Saturday’s game against No. 18 Tennessee.
“I think if the line comes out and everybody does what we are supposed to do, we can have a great day,” South Carolina junior running back David Williams said. “They are a physical football team and we have to force our will on them.”
The Gamecocks are coming off a season-high 194 rushing yards against UMass last week.
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“It feels great,” offensive tackle Mason Zandi said. “You rush for 200 yards against anybody, that’s going to make you feel good as an offensive lineman and a running back.”
The competition gets stiffer this week when the Volunteers (5-2 overall 2-2 SEC) come to Williams-Brice Stadium for a 7:15 p.m. Saturday, but the Vols aren’t exactly run stuffers. Tennessee is 11th in the SEC and 110th in the nation in yards per carry allowed at 5.14.
South Carolina’s run game could get a boost from the return of 6-foot-4, 325-pound offensive lineman Donnell Stanley, who started the season at right guard but suffered a severe high ankle sprain on the first series of the first game. Stanley returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since that injury.
“He’s still gimpy on that ankle, but hopefully it’ll improve tomorrow,” coach Will Muschamp said. “He needs to move a little better. Seven weeks and he hasn’t taken a snap, but I know one thing, he’s tough. To be able to do what he’s done is pretty remarkable. They thought he’d be out for the season when the injury occurred and he’s been able to get back. It’s a testament to the toughness that young man has.”
If Stanley can return to the starting lineup, it will be a boon for the Gamecocks (3-4, 1-4).
“Our base run is an inside zone and you’re talking about taking a guy that gets great movement at 330 pounds and can anchor on 3-technique and you’re going to get 3 or 4 yards when you run to his side,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that certainly gives us some girth inside and some athleticism inside to get movement.”
Stanley “is a huge guy in the run game,” tight end Hayden Hurst said. “He helps us get movement on guys. He’s so strong and physical. It’ll be huge to have him back.”
The run game also could be improved by the downfield passing of freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who made his first start last Saturday.
“That will help the run game a lot because you are not expecting it plus you don’t have eight, nine people in the box knowing you are going to run it,” Williams said. “We are not going to be predictable if we can run the ball.”
Maintaining balance will be particularly important Saturday against Tennessee and defensive end Derek Barnett, Muschamp said. Barnett’s tied for second in the SEC with 11.5 tackles for loss.
Barnett “can change the game,” Muschamp said. “We have to account for him in everything. When you stay balanced, it is very difficult on a defense because, you are sitting there thinking in your mind, ‘OK, I want to run a pass pressure and run an overload.’ Well, if they run it the other way we’ve got a problem. That’s why, to me, it is so important to be balanced in what you do.”
Who: Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) vs. South Carolina (3-4, 1-4)
When: 7:15 p.m., Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 107.5 FM
Line: Tennessee by 13