KNOXVILLE — How will Tennessee’s passing game fare against South Carolina?
That’s one of the key questions entering Saturday’s game.
Outside of the opener against N.C. State, South Carolina has been stellar in pass defense. The Gamecocks rank 97th nationally in pass defense giving up 248.8 passing yards per game. But remove the pass-happy Wolfpack’s 415 yards, and the average drops to 215 yards per game. That total would rank No. 53.
So the season stats can be misleading.
Outside of the opening game, Will Muschamp’s defense has not given up more than 281 yards to an opponent through-the-air. South Carolina also held Missouri to 245 yards on 32 attempts. South Carolina also has six interceptions, tied for second in the SEC, and returned two for touchdowns.
The challenge for Tennessee’s offense is for Quinten Dormady to be effective enough to keep heat off running back John Kelly. That’s not a particularly new development, but its something the Vols haven’t quite mastered this season.
Following another sub-par performance from Dormady in a 41-0 loss to Georgia, Butch Jones will look for him to get back to the basics and protect the ball by making good decisions. Dormady went 5-for-16 for only 64 yards and threw two interceptions against the Bulldogs.
Jones said “taking care of the football” is the first priority.
“We cannot turn the football over,” Jones said. “It starts with making good decisions with the football. I think the quarterback characteristics of leadership, bringing energy every day, command of the offense and then again it gets back to decision-making and decisions.
“The decision-making process is everything, and then consistency in performance day in and day out, whether it’s practice, on game day, and being able to make the routine plays, whether it’s a hitch, whether it’s a curl, whether it’s a slant, whether it’s a throw to the flat or whether it’s a read in the RPO (run-pass option) game or decisions in the zone read, all those things that go into it.”
Of course, if Dormady can’t get it done, Jarrett Guarantano will be waiting. How much will he play Saturday? Only Jones seems to know, but the coach said both quarterbacks shared “probably 60-40” split of the reps during the bye week.
Regardless who is taking snaps, offensive coordinator Larry Scott is searching for consistency.
“Every time you watch some football, I don’t care on what level, what hurts offenses and what hurts teams are mistakes in the wrong time, in a bad situation,” Scott said. “And when you’re really trying to move forward and get some things going and get in a rhythm and you have a mistake, it always hurts and it sets you back.”
Rhythm will be tested in third-down situations and Tennessee will need to be able to move the chains through the air against Muchamp’s defense that will provide pressure in making each opportunity a test.
South Carolina has seven defensive linemen with sacks through six games totaling seven sacks and has 10 total sacks as a defensive unit. Pressure on the quarterback has also generated the six interceptions, with senior linebacker Skai Moore leading the way with two.