The day after South Carolina was battered 28-14 by Georgia on Oct. 9, Will Muschamp told his team to expect some changes. The Gamecocks, who gave up 326 rushing yards to the Bulldogs, were going to get a lot more physical with a lot more starters-against-starters work in practice, the coach told them.
“He has been telling us to get ready to embrace it,” safety D.J. Smith said.
This is the week when Muschamp and his team learn if the changes will pay dividends. The Gamecocks (3-4, 1-4 SEC) take on No. 18 Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. in Williams-Brice Stadium.
“We’ll see how far we’ve come on Saturday night,” Muschamp said.
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South Carolina was bullied by Georgia’s running game, not caught out of position but pushed out of position. The Bulldogs threw 17 passes and completed five of them, but controlled the game.
The next week of practice “wasn’t a normal bye week,” offensive lineman Cory Helms said. “We were getting after it. I think that’s sort of changing the culture around here. We have to be really physical.”
Linebacker Jonathan Walton missed the bye week because of a knee injury but noticed the uptick in physicality from the sideline. He believes the Volunteers will see a different defense than the one that played Georgia.
“I think they are planning on a lot of man-on-man matchups and their guys just being more athletic for us and we’re preparing for that,” Walton said. “I think athleticism wise we can compete with anybody in the country.”
South Carolina is 10th in the SEC in run defense, allowing 211.4 yards per game. The Vols are 10th in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 169.6 yards per game. The Gamecocks are 3-0 this season when holding opponents to less than 200 rushing yards and 0-4 when their opponent gains more than 200 yards. In South Carolina’s wins, opponents are averaging 143.3 yards on the ground. In its four losses, opponents are averaging 265.3 yards.
“Oh yeah, we’re improving,” South Carolina defensive lineman Dante Sawyer said. “Tennessee has “great backs, just as Georgia did.”
The Gamecocks have spent more time this week in what Muschamp calls “fastball work” – which means offensive starters practicing against defensive starters – because Tennessee runs similar offensive and defensive systems to South Carolina.
“It’s so important for you to expose looks for your players to prepare them mentally for the game, and in order to do that, you have to rep it,” Muschamp said. “We were together probably more (Tuesday) than we have all season as far as eliminating scout reps and going strictly versus good on good work and fastball work, and that’s how you get better.
“It’s a developmental game and you’ve got to be able to do that, especially our youth. I made a mistake by not doing that earlier in the season.”
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