CHARLOTTE, NC (WIS) - The first half of the season for South Carolina didn’t go according to plan.
There’s no denying that. Going 3-3 and essentially finding themselves out of the race for the SEC East, the Gamecocks hoped to make the most of the rest of the season. And they did. Winners of four of their last six, USC secured bowl eligibility for the third straight year under Muschamp and hope to end the year on a high note. The only way to do that is with a win over Virginia at Bank of America Stadium in the Belk Bowl.
“As you turn the tape on, these guys play tough and physical,” said Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp. “That’s the biggest compliment you can give a coach in how [their] guys play on tape and it speaks for itself.”
The Gamecocks will be tasked with stopping a Virginia offense that’s led by Bryce Perkins. The junior quarterback has thrown for 2,472 yards and 22 touchdowns. He has also rushed for 842 yards and nine touchdowns for the Cavaliers. Being able to hurt defenses with his arm and his legs is something the Gamecocks will have to remain aware of come Saturday.
“They have a vast variety of run concepts that they have,” said Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp. “They present a lot of issues. They outnumber you in the run game because of the quarterback. He creates an extra gap when he’s the ball carrier. So, they’ve got some option principles to what they do. We’re going to have to adjust to the different things that they’re going to present to us on gameday.”
Perkins, however, isn’t the only threat for the Cavaliers in the rushing attack. Jordan Ellis is the team’s leading rusher with 920 yards and is tied for the team lead with Perkins with nine rushing touchdowns. Virginia averages 170 yards per game on the ground, but South Carolina gives up nearly 200 rushing yards per game. It is a definite point of emphasis the Gamecocks have looked at as they prepared for Saturday’s game.
“We haven’t played as well defensively, especially down in the latter portion of the season,” Muschamp said. “We need to play better.”
On offense, the Gamecocks will look to put points on the board without playmaker Deebo Samuel. The senior wide receiver opted not to play for the Gamecocks this weekend to prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft. Samuel scored 13 touchdowns in his final campaign with the Gamecocks putting him only behind kicker Parker White in points scored this season.
“Anybody that replaces Deebo Samuel is an outstanding football player,” Muschamp said. “He’s got a great work ethic on the field as far as practice. He positively affects everybody around him. But again, I understand we weren’t going to have him next year. So, we’ve got to learn to have some guys step up. I don’t think one person does that. It’s going to take multiple people to do that.”
The Cavaliers give up just short of 22 points per game this year. However, Bronco Mendenhall’s team has surrender 30 points or more in each of the last two games. Still, the Gamecocks understand that UVA won’t be a pushover on defense.
“Defensively, they’ve been very hard to create explosive plays against,” Muschamp said. “They haven’t given up a lot of explosive plays and they’re very long and athletics in the front seven.”
The Cavaliers’ leading tackler is senior strong safety Juan Thornhill with 92. He also leads the team in interceptions with five. Up front, the Gamecocks will have to find a way to contain Chris Peace. The senior outside linebacker has found his way into the backfield several times collecting a team-high six sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
South Carolina takes on Virginia at Bank of America Stadium in the Belk Bowl. Kickoff is Saturday at noon.