For SEC games this season, Daniel Lewis will put together a blueprint for how Tennessee can have its best chance to knock off that week’s opponent. It’s written from a Tennessee coach’s mindset and isn’t necessarily representative of how RTI predicts the game to go.
Offense: This is almost copy/paste from the Kentucky game last week. Tennessee is running the football on everybody. South Carolina can’t stop anybody on the ground. This matchup looks really, really good for the Vols.
The Gamecocks are dead last in the SEC, giving up 215 yards per game on the ground. Tennessee is averaging 214 yards per game rushing. I think you can see what is going to happen there. South Carolina has been gashed by the No. 1 and No. 3 rushing teams in the SEC in LSU (396 yards rushing) and Georgia (246 with a healthy Nick Chubb).
UT sits right between those teams in terms of total rushing. The gameplan has to start with the Vols running the football until SC goes to ridiculous lengths to make them stop.
South Carolina interim coach Shawn Elliott said it best this week: Tennessee’s rushing attack is so difficult to defend because of the variety of ways that UT can attack a defense on the ground. In terms of a top back, a rushing quarterback and a complimentary back, the Vols may have the best combo in the SEC when it comes to that trio of Jalen Hurd, Joshua Dobbs and Alvin Kamara. And even if you figure all that out, Tennessee has shown other wrinkles such as a wildcat package, jet sweeps and other ways to keep defenses off balance.
And for really the first time this season, Dobbs also showed he could make a team pay in the secondary when it brings too much pressure. He did that the difficult way against Kentucky by finding Josh Malone, who is continuing to emerge for the Vols, on a 75-yard bomb for a score. He also did it the easier way, dropping a screen pass off to Jalen Hurd, who should have a field day against South Carolina if he can get into the open field.
The blueprint is very simple. Run the ball at South Carolina until the Gamecocks find some way to make it stop. And then make them pay in the passing game if/when they are able to do that. Don’t give the Gamecocks anything cheap either. Kentucky was able to scare the Vols early in Lexington by getting a sack/strip. South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore is the player to keep an eye on in that area. On an SC defense that has been poor all season, Moore keeps flying around and making plays, including 83 tackles, a sack, four interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Make sure Moore is accounted for, run the football and hit a few shot plays. That’s the recipe for the Vols this week to move the ball consistently and to put a lot of points on the board.
Defense: Even without Steve Spurrier tossing his visor around, South Carolina’s offense has still shown some life. Now under Elliott, an offensive line coach by background, calling the shots, the Gamecocks are looking to run the football. They’ve been able to do that thus far – putting up 405 yards on the ground in his two games at the helm this season.
Running back Brandon Wilds, who had a career-high 143 yards on the Vols in 2014, is coming off-back-to-back 115+ yard performances against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. After missing some time with an injury, he’s hitting his stride and showing why he might be a bit overlooked when discussing SEC running backs this season.
The passing game hasn’t been as effective, coming in 12th in the SEC with 186.1 yard per game. It has been somewhat of a one-trick passing attack. Pharoh Cooper, one of the best receivers in the SEC, has been about all the Gamecocks have in terms of a down-the-field threat. Tight end Jerell Adams has done some good things, but no other wide receiver on the roster has more than seven catches on the year.
That means Tennessee’s attack must center on slowing the run game while not losing track of Cooper like the Vols did last year on his way to 286 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. I’m not expecting the Vols to necessarily shadow Cooper with Cam Sutton because that hasn’t been a tactic they’ve regularly used, but if they don’t do that, there has to be an extra pair of eyes on him at all times.
Perhaps the Vols will only have one safety deep at times to stack the box against the run, but make sure that the safety is shading to Cooper’s side. He’s the only one who has proven that he can beat you deep. The Vols should feel confident in man coverage on everybody else.
The special teams battle will also be one to watch this game. Of all the things South Carolina has done poorly this year, special teams has been a clear bright spot. SC is top three in the conference in both kickoff and punt return coverage. The Vols are No. 2 in punt return average and tops in the league in kickoff return average. The Gamecocks also hit 70 percent of their kickoffs for touchbacks, so opportunities may be few and far between for national leader Evan Berry. If he can get to any of them, it’d probably be wise to take them out based on what he’s been able to do so far this year.
Be on the lookout for trick plays, fourth-down attempts, wildcat looks and just about anything else you can imagine. SC doesn’t have a ton to lose in this one. Expect the Gamecocks to play loose, take some chances and try to move the ball in chunks. The SC coaching staff has to know that its defense will struggle to hold UT’s offense in check, so look for some gambles and expect the unexpected as the Gamecocks look to pull off the upset in Neyland.