COLUMBIA, Mo. - We’ve covered the Missouri-South Carolina series history. We all know Kelly Bryant gets to face his old in-state rival. It’s one former Nick Saban assistant (Will Muschamp) versus another (Derek Dooley). We even know the uniform combinations: White jerseys, black pants for the Gamecocks; black jerseys, gold pants for the Tigers.
Now it’s time to dive into the matchups. The Tigers are 9-point favorites but will need some things to go their way to snap a three-game losing streak to South Carolina. We’re talking beyond the unpredictable, like turnovers, injuries and weather complications. (As of this morning, the forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms during the day and night.)
With a big assist from the handy web site SECStatCat.com, here’s a closer look at three crucial matchups for Saturday’s 3 p.m. kickoff:
South Carolina’s running game vs. Missouri’s defensive front
Gamecocks freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski is getting a lot of recognition for throwing for 300 yards against Alabama, but the foundation of South Carolina’s offense last week and all season has been a rugged running game. Against Alabama, the Gamecocks ran it only 29 times — to 57 throws — but averaged a healthy 4.7 yards percarry. Since the start of the 2015 season, only three Power 5 teams have posted a better average against Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide: Oklahoma in last year’s playoff semifinal (5.1), Arkansas in 2018 (5.6) and Georgia in 2015 (5.1). Of those 29 runs, 17 came on first down and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt. That’s how you keep your freshman quarterback in comfortable situations, set him up with manageable down and distances with a healthy burst on first down. South Carolina had most of its rushing success with 11 personnel on the field (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), running out of that package 23 times.
Rico Dowdle is off to a strong start, rushing for 102 yards against Alabama and averaging 7.6 yards per carry for the season.
The Gamecocks have one of the best backups in the SEC, a strong counterpunch in Tavien Feaster, a 221-pound graduate transfer from Clemson. He’s at 5.8 yards per carry and ranks among the SEC leaders with 18 broken tackles for the year. He also averages 4.7 yards after contact, second-best among SEC backs with at least 20 carries.
These are two runners who will absorb contact and dish it right back.
“Their backs, the transfer and (Dowdle), those are probably the best backs we’ve seen so far,” Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “They’re big and physical and we’ve got to do a good job of getting 11 hats to the ball and playing physical. It’s going to be a physical game. That’s Coach Muschamp’s style in his history. Finishing and physicality.”
Granted, Alabama’s defense is young up the middle and missing All-SEC linebacker Dylan Moses, but it’s rare for the Crimson Tide to not dominate the line of scrimmage. For stretches last week, the Gamecocks held their own in the trenches.
“Their offensive line did a heck of a job,” Tigers coach Barry Odom said. “They ran extremely well. Solid, tough runs. The simplistic approach of how they did it play after play it was impressive to watch. We've got to make sure that we somehow combat that on the line scrimmage and try to control it. We’ve got to be great tacklers because they run so physical, not just Rico but all of them.”
As for the Tigers’ rush defense, it’s been total domination the last two weeks against an overmatched West Virginia offensive line and Southeast Missouri State. For the last two weeks, Mizzou has allowed only 70 yards on 64 rushing attempts. You can’t erase the two long touchdown runs Wyoming used to build its lead on the Tigers in Week 1, but other than those two plays, Mizzou’s three opponents have averaged just 2.2 yards per carry. Saturday is a prove-it game for Missouri’s defense. The Tigers can prove their defense is the version that evaporated the run the last two weeks instead of the unit that got exposed on the ground in Laramie.
South Carolina’s short passing game vs. Missouri’s coverages
Let’s stick with South Carolina’s offense. In his first SEC start, Hilinski put the ball in the air 57 times. Only one quarterback in school history has thrown more passes in the game, the mulleted wonder Steve Taneyhill. (Neither of which played for the HBC, passing game maestro Steve Spurrier.) It wasn’t exactly a very efficient performance for Hilinski, who averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt. That’s not far off from Drew Lock’s rough day at Alabama last year (5.5) and nearly half what Trevor Lawrence averaged (10.8) in last year’s playoff championship game.
Taking a closer look at Hilinski’s outing at SECStatcat.com, a few notes on his performance…
• Of his 57 attempts, 15 were targeted behind the line of scrimmage and 29 were targeted between 0 and 10 yards downfield. That’s 44 of his 57 passes, more than 77 percent. This was the quintessential short passing game against an Alabama defense with linebacker issues. The Dink and Dunk Express. Hilinski’s average target was 7.5 yards downfield. You can afford to be that conservative when you’re averaging nearly 7 yards per rush on first down.
• How do you beat a pass rush? Get rid of the ball fast. And Hilinski did that last week faster than any starting quarterback in the SEC. His average time of release was 1.95 seconds, the fastest among SEC starters. His season average is 1.97 seconds. Again, best among SEC starters.
• Hilinski had the second-lowest percentage of play-action passes in the SEC last week (8.8) and the third-lowest for the season (13.8). The South Carolina coaches are calling plays to get the ball out of his hands quickly, minimizing his exposure in the pocket. As a result, only 13.8 percent of his pass plays have come under pressure, second-lowest in the SEC. That’s good pass protection, smart play-calling and quick decision-making.
What’s that tell us about Saturday’s game? The Tigers might not be able to generate much of a pass rush against Hilinski without putting the Gamecocks in uncomfortable second-and-long and third-and-long situations. That’s Mizzou’s happy place on defense. The Tigers’ D has been on the field for 12 plays when the offense has needed at least 10 yards for a first down. Quarterbacks have completed just 3 of 12 passes in those situations for 26 yards and one first down. That’s a passer rating of just 9.9, second-best among all SEC defenses, only behind Alabama.
If South Carolina will try to neutralize Missouri’s pass rush with short, quick throws, it’s up to the linebackers and secondary to break on the ball, tackle in space and avoid the big play. Expect to see Walters disguise some coverages before the snap to confuse the freshman quarterback. Mizzou’s pass defense ranks No. 2 nationally, obviously the result of a small sample size that included one team that barely bothered to pass in Wyoming.
That ranking probably won’t survive the meat of Mizzou’s SEC schedule, but Muschamp is impressed with the secondary his young QB faces Saturday.
“Christian Holmes is a really good player. He’s long, very athletic, good man to man guy,” Muschamp said this week. “DeMarkus Acy is a veteran player. Both of those guys are 6-1, 6-2 on the edges and do a really good job. They’re good up the middle at the safety positions. (Khalil) Oliver is a really good nickel/SAM guy and he and (Ronnell) Perkins both play about the same amount of time. They’re a long secondary. They’re all 6-foot plus. They run extremely well. They do a good job mixing their coverages and they’re a good man coverage team.”
“They’re playing more man coverage percentages wise,” he added. “They’ve always been a very good Cover 2 since Barry’s been there. They’re doing a nice job in zone coverage and giving you different looks and adjustments … and disguising looks.”
Missouri’s passing game
vs. South Carolina’s secondary
South Carolina did a nice job bottling up Alabama’s running game last week, holding the Tide to just 3.0 rushing yards per attempt — the lowest average for Bama since the 2015 national championship game win over Clemson. The Tide finished with fewer than 100 rushing yards for the first time since 2014. If the Tigers have similar struggles trying to run the ball on the Gamecocks, moving the chains is going to be a chore. Javon Kinlaw is the player to watch up front for South Carolina. He’s a 6-6, 310-pound senior tackle, a potential first-round draft pick next spring and one of the elite interior linemen in the SEC.
The Gamecocks’ problems this year rest in the secondary. Muschamp has been shuffling around his corners and safeties through three weeks hoping to find the right combination of stoppers on the back end. Tua Tagovailoa carved through the Cocks for 444 yards and five touchdowns last week, doing most of his damage with intermediate throws and let his track team at wide receiver do the rest of the work.
Here’s what SECStatcat.com tells us about Tua’s big day against the Gamecock defense …
• You see a number like 444 and you assume Alabama stretched the defense vertically and chucked the ball deep all day. Not at all. Tagovailoa was 27 of 29 for 395 yards on passes that traveled 10 yards or less through the air, including 15 of 17 for 290 yards on passes between 0 and 10 yards. Screens and slants — and a whole lot of missed tackles from the Gamecocks. Alabama attempted 12 slants, 10 tunnel screens and five bubble screens.
• Tagovailoa’s average target was just 5.5 yards downfield. He completed only two passes on 10 attempts on balls that traveled beyond 10 yards. That’s incredible for a 444-yard passing day. Bama threw for 495 yards on the day — and 404 of the yards came after the catch, which means Tua and backup Mac Jones only put the ball in the air 91 yards.
• Alabama threw 39 passes and South Carolina defenders got their hands on just three. Muschamp’s staff counted 11 missed tackles for his defense against Alabama.
“We need to quit worrying about trying to get the ball off people and secure tackles,” he said. “Then we can try to get the ball off people. That's something that's not just being coached this week, it's been coached for a very long time. But players have to make decisions and snapshot decisions on game day. Sometimes it's easy to be critical of a player in a situation when you're going up against an elite player and trying to get him on the ground. We'll continue to coach it."
“Defensively, we've got to improve tremendously on the back end,” he added. “The explosive plays are something we emphasize going into the game, and we didn't obviously handle that situation very well. We need to play more consistently on the defensive side of the ball, because we have had some spurts where we have played well.”
If the Tigers can keep South Carolina’s defensive front out of the backfield and keep Bryant in manageable situations throwing the ball, the Tigers can follow Alabama’s blueprint against a shaky Gamecock secondary. Mizzou doesn’t have Alabama’s collection of Sunday talent at wide receiver — has any college team in recent memory? — but between Jalen Knox, Kam Scott, Jonathan Nance, Johnathon Johnson, Barrett Banister, the Tigers have weapons who can make you miss and stretch the field with explosive plays.