5 things South Carolina must do to beat Michigan in Outback Bowl
TAMPA — Monday’s Outback Bowl will be a rematch of the game five years earlier at Raymond James Stadium between the South Carolina Gamecocks and Michigan Wolverines.
South Carolina would love to produce a single play as memorable as Jadeveon Clowney’s fumble-inducing, helmet-flying, running-back-walloping hit from Jan. 1, 2013.
But ultimately that was one play, and against a solid Michigan defense the Gamecocks must produce more highlights on offense in Monday’s game.
Here are 5 things the Gamecocks must do to win the Outback Bowl for the second time in five years:
Get Bentley going early
South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley hit a slump at the end of the regular season. In his past six games against FBS competition, Bentley passed for 200 yards just twice and his completion percentage fell a tick under 60 percent (106 for 177, 59.89 percent).
Slow starts have been a result; South Carolina has averaged just 14.4 points in the first halves of those six games. Even against Wofford, an FCS program, the Gamecocks led just 14-3 at the half. Interim offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon has had the extra bowl practices — which all coaches cite as being valuable both for the postseason game itself and the health of a program going forward — to work with Bentley.
The sophomore pointed to footwork as one of the big keys to breaking out of his malaise. But Michigan brings one of the best defensive lines in the country to this game, so it’s not all on Bentley because his big guys up front must …
Keep Bentley clean
Michigan is third in the nation in total defense, allowing 268.6 yards a game, and leads the nation in pass defense at 142.7 yards per game. A big key is the pressure that the Wolverines apply up front; they have 39 sacks this season and their average of 3.25 a game ranks seventh in the nation.
Michigan had a season-high 6 sacks in its opening victory against Florida, one of eight games in which the Wolverines totaled at least 3.
Two Wolverines rank among the country’s top 50 in sacks per game — lineman Chase Winovich (0.67 average) and safety/linebacker Khaleke Hudson (0.58). And that doesn’t even account for defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, a consensus first-team All-American, or talented lineman Rashan Gary. Alan Knott, Zack Bailey and the rest of South Carolina’s offensive line must keep the pressure off Bentley.
Prevent big plays
The Wolverines have not been a terribly efficient at moving the ball this season, ranking 101st in the country in total offense (354.9 yards per game) and 112th in passing yards per game at 168.6. But Michigan demonstrated here, here and here that it can hit big plays.
If South Carolina allows one or two plays like those, it could get quarterback Brandon Peters and company going in a way that Michigan has rarely displayed this season. Running back Karan Higdon is averaging 6.3 yards per carry and his burst will be a problem for South Carolina.
Linebacker Skai Moore and the rest of the South Carolina defense should focus on Michigan’s ground game because, even with quarterback Peters healthy again after he missed the Ohio State game, the Wolverines are unlikely to scare the Gamecocks through the air.
Sort out special teams
South Carolina is ranked 57th in the nation in punt return average (8.12 yards per return) and 28th in kick returns (23.03 ypr). But that latter stat is deceiving — Deebo Samuel had two kick returns early in the season and ran both back for touchdowns, but he has missed most of the season with a broken leg and won’t play in the Outback Bowl.
And without him, the Gamecocks are averaging 17.56 yards per return, which would rank 121st among 130 FBS teams. South Carolina also has not been great at kicking, as Parker White and Alexander Woznick have combined to go 13-for-25 in field goal tries.
But the good news for the Gamecocks is that they are 12th in the nation in net punting as punter Joseph Charlton (44.3-yard average) is having a fine season. If he can pin the Wolverines deep a few times, he can make things even more difficult for the Michigan offense.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp confirmed that running back Rico Dowdle will probably miss Monday’s game with the broken leg, which has kept him out for much of this season. So the team will again turn to the trio of A.J. Turner, Ty’Son Williams and Mon Denson at running back.
Bentley leads the team in rushing touchdowns with six but he isn’t an explosive runner (67 carries for 86 yards with a long of 24 yards this season). In fact big plays have been hard to come by, as South Carolina’s longest run all season is a 35-yarder by Williams. Finding a way to run consistently against a strong Michigan defense would help set up Bentley for success through the air.