South Carolina football: 5 things I want to see Saturday at Tennessee
Brace yourselves for a tight game on Rocky Top. The history of series reflects a game within a touchdown, the betting line is South Carolina favored by 4 points, and the Gamecocks haven’t blown anyone out this year save for Charleston Southern and a Kentucky team with major quarterback issues.
While he didn’t want to discuss it Tuesday, coach Will Muschamp has his best coaching mark against Tennessee. Muschamp is 7-0 record against Tennessee as a head coach. He was 4-0 as the head coach at Florida, 3-0 with the Gamecocks. The 7 wins are the most Muschamp has against any opponent.
Here are 5 things I want to see Saturday at Tennessee:
The running game without Rico Dowdle
After Rico Dowdle went down early against Florida with a right knee injury after 1 carry, the team was left without its leading rusher. He’s doubtful at best this weekend.
“I don’t know that he will be available this weekend,” Muschamp said. “… I don’t have a timeline but probably not this weekend.”
Insert Tavien Feaster, who’s had an up-and-down season with now 2 games of over 100 yards, but the 175 yards against Florida was a shock considering 5 other games were less than 100 yards, and 3 games were under 40 yards. Give Feaster credit; his huge game against Florida put him in rare company in South Carolina history. That 175 yards is the 6th-most in South Carolina history against an SEC defense.
Feaster will get help from Mon Denson, who has potential, but has largely been the 3rd back in his career in Columbia. He has 3 games of at least 100 yards rushing in the last 2 seasons, and against Kentucky and Florida he averaged over 4 yards per carry.
“Another great example of a great teammate that has waited his turn and has been very productive when he’s had his opportunities,” Muschamp said. “He’s been a very productive member of our special teams unit. And we’re extremely pleased with him and we’re excited about him playing on Saturday, there’s no doubt about it and he’ll play well.”
A consistent down-field passing game
The story of the week is the inconsistent passing game, especially down field, and how much Ryan Hilinski needs to further develop with a host of above-average targets from WR Bryan Edwards to Shi Smith, to tight ends Kyle Markway and Nick Muse. Muschamp has said the Gamecocks need to find things Hilinski does well, and it’s head-scratching that he had such a strong game against Alabama but mostly struggled since.
With the running game a bit in flux while Dowdle is out with a knee injury, it’s important for the passing game to pull its weight.
“I thought he looked the best he’s looked on a Tuesday practice since the injury,” Muschamp said of Hilinski. “There was some things that could have been a fly route on one of the deep balls. I mean there were some things that we could have done better around him. But he’d be the first person to tell you that we need to be more accurate throwing the football. But I thought he had a really good Tuesday practice. He was sharp throwing the football, bouncing around in the pocket.”
Will officiating play a role?
South Carolina and Tennessee were on the wrong side of controversial officiating last week against Florida and Alabama, respectively. Muschamp said Tuesday he’s still waiting to hear from the SEC office after Commissioner Greg Sankey texted him Sunday night that the officiating from the Florida game was still under review. Meanwhile, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said officiating is a tough job, yet added, “Now, there’s probably 3 or 4 other things that happened in that game that I don’t agree with, OK?”
Remember, there was a controversial call in this game last year. Tennessee players were convinced after the loss to South Carolina that a would-be fumble by South Carolina’s Ty’Son Williams that was whistled dead by officials was, in fact, a fumble. The Vols could have returned it for a 99-yard touchdown. Instead, the Gamecocks were credited with the touchdown with 5 seconds left in the 3rd quarter.
Can Parker White make a key kick?
The Gamecocks’ kicker has been a very visible figure in this series the past 2 years. Last year, White’s 25-yard field goal with 5:52 remaining proved to be the difference. The last time in Knoxville, White made all 3 of his field goal attempts, including a tie-breaking 21-yarder with 5:17 remaining, and South Carolina produced a goal-line stand in the closing seconds of a 15-9 win. Both teams struggled on offense, and the South Carolina defense had 7 sacks while it held Tennessee out of the end zone.
White has had a bit of an uneven season this year with a mark of 11-for-15. That’s tied for 8th in the SEC. His 2-for-4 performance at Georgia was nearly a devastating blow to the upset hopes. Tennessee’s kicker Brent Cimaglia, meanwhile, leads the SEC with a 13-for-14 start to the season.
D.J. Wonnum looking for a 3rd big game vs. Vols
Wonnum earned SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for his performance against Tennessee in 2017 and again in 2018, as he had 2 sacks in each game. Wonnum this week was nominated for National Comeback Player of the Year.
“I don’t know that there’s enough adjectives I have that could describe D.J. Wonnum and the type of young man he is, what he stands for,” Muschamp said. “He’s a really good football player, he’s an even better person. And he’s got great leadership ability and great leadership qualities. He’s one of 3 people in school history to be elected team captain as a true sophomore. That says a lot about the respect of his teammates and the staff here.”