COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The regular season is winding down and the South Carolina Gamecocks are hoping to put themselves to play one more game come December.
Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp and company currently sit at four wins this year and need two more to become bowl eligible. For the Gamecocks, accomplishing that goal is paramount — especially for their seniors. On Saturday, Carolina hopes to take another step in sending the seniors off the right way and becoming bowl eligible as they seek a win over Appalachian State.
“A very important night for our seniors,” Muschamp said. 25 young men that have represented themselves, their families, the University of South Carolina in a first-class manner. 11 of these guys have already graduated, 11 more will graduate in December, and then three more will graduate in May, so all 25 will walk out of here with a diploma University of South Carolina, and some of them are going to be walking out with multiple diplomas.”
The previously ranked Mountaineers come off a tough loss to Georgia Southern, which was their first setback of the year. Now, they’ll take aim at getting back into the AP Top 25 with a win over the Gamecocks.
“We have a great challenge ahead of us, a night game on the road with a tremendous SEC opponent who has multiple blue-chip recruits, a great scheme, great coaches who beat the number three team at the time in Georgia,” Appalachian State head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our guys, a great game for us to refocus and a great opponent to work towards this weekend. We’re excited about the opportunity.”
The Mountaineers are led on offense by running back Darrynton Evans and reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Zac Thomas. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior Evans leads the team in rushing with 798 yards and 10 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Thomas is among the top four passers in the conference with 1,748 yards and 17 passing touchdowns.
“(Thomas) can make all the throws, he has legs, he can extend plays, but he's a guy that's very efficient in running their offense and Eliah calls the plays and does a really good job,” said Muschamp. “They got a stable of backs in Evans, Williams, Harrington, and Anderson. All are very capable. All have top-end speed, finish speed down the field.”
Thomas Hennigan, Corey Sutton, and Malik Williams are the top receivers for the Mountaineers. Combined, the trio accounts for 1,233 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. With the success this group has had, the Gamecocks’ secondary will look to limit the Mountaineers’ passing game by keeping the speedy receivers in front of them to limit explosive plays.
Defensively, Appalachian State is giving up an average of just under 20 points per game. To break that down even further, the Mountaineers clamp down on offenses mostly in the first and fourth quarters. In those periods, opponents score an average of about nine points per game.
“They remain an odd structure which is what they have done before and what they had recruited to, but Demetrius Taylor's a fantastic player up front, very disruptive,” Muschamp said. “An outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither's a very active guy, and on the back end Josh Thomas is a guy that really shows up. But I think they got eight or so starters back on defense off a very experienced good team.”
Taylor is the team leader in sacks for Appalachian State with five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. He’s joined at the forefront of the Mountaineers’ defense by Davis-Gaither who has nine tackles for loss. All in all, the Mountaineers have a very disruptive defense that knows how to get into the backfield and make it a long day for offenses. In total, they have 18 sacks, 49 tackles for loss, five fumble recoveries, and six interceptions.
While the Mountaineers present a stiff challenge on defense, the Gamecocks’ offense hopes to make some history on Saturday. Heading into the contest, Bryan Edwards is 88 yards shy of becoming the program’s all-time leader in receiving yards. Meanwhile, quarterback Ryan Hilinski is 10 pass attempts away from capturing the record for most attempts without an interception. Without question, the duo has been instrumental in helping the Gamecocks move the ball and put points on the board.
“Well there's no question,” Muschamp began. “To have somebody that you have a comfort level with that you depend that they're going to make a play for you, that you can throw a hitch, you can throw a screen, you can throw somethin' that's a quick game that you don't have to make a huge decision on, and a guy can crease it make a 30 yard completion, which gives you a lot of confidence, which gives our entire football team confidence, and our offense confidence. So there's no question to have a guy like Bryan out there that is dependable as he's been for us this year, that's a huge aid to Ryan.”
South Carolina hosts Appalachian State on Saturday at 7 p.m. for Senior Night. The game can be seen on ESPN2.