By Scott Hood
What: No. 12 South Carolina (2-1) at UCF (3-0)
Where: Bright House Networks Stadium (45,323), Orlando, Fla.
When: Noon on Saturday
TV: ABC (Dave Pasch, Brian Griese, Tom Luginbill)
Stepping out of the SEC, South Carolina seeks a win in a rare nonconference road game at a place other than Clemson when the Gamecocks square off with Central Florida (UCF) Saturday afternoon in Orlando, Fla., the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world. USC has won 11 straight games over nonconference foes since the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl loss. USC and UCF meet for the fourth time overall, and the first time since 2005 when George O'Leary brought the Knights to Columbia for Steve Spurrier's coaching debut with the Gamecocks.
USC OFFENSE v. UCF DEFENSE:
The Connor Shaw back spasm scare is over after the junior signal-caller practiced Thursday afternoon and felt fine. He exited Wednesday's practice early, but
now should be ready to go for his 24th career start (19-4) record.
Guiding the USC offense through a record-setting first three games, Shaw is fourth in passing efficiency (166.7 rating), fourth in total offense (287.7 ypg) and seventh in passing (220.3 ypg) in the SEC. USC totaled 1,439 yards of offense against North Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt, an average of 479.7 yards per game, the highest figure after the first three games since at least 1962 when full records are available.
Shaw, completing 66.5 percent of his career pass attempts (highest in school history), has thrown 116 straight passes without an interception. He is looking for the 20th victory of his career, tying him with Stephen Garcia, Steve Taneyhill and Garry Harper.
He will face a UCF defense featuring just one senior starter on defense. Starting Knights linebacker Willie Mitchell was suspended indefinitely after being arrested and charged with driving under the influence on Sept. 7. He did not play against Penn State on Sept. 14 and George O'Leary said on Wednesday that Mitchell would sit out Saturday's game as well.
True freshman Chequan Burkett made his first college start in Mitchell's place at Penn State and finished with six tackles, one for loss.
UCF has a pair of 300-pound defensive tackles, but the Gamecocks will enjoy a major size advantage across the offensive front with their enormous line led by mammoth tackles Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell. When USC inserts Mason Zandi into the game as a tight end/third tackle, USC will have three players standing at least 6-foot-6 (Robinson is 6-8, Zandi is 6-9) blocking on the edges.
As a result, running backs Mike Davis (341 yards) and Brandon Wilds (109), along with Shaw (202), should find wide holes to run through between the tackles and plenty of space on the perimeter. USC rushed for greater 220 or more yards in each of their first three games, so the ground game has been functioning at peak performance.
UCF middle linebacker Terrance Plummer, who has led the Knight in tackles in each of the first three games, has 28 tackles and will spearhead the effort to keep the USC rushing attack from exceeding 200 yards for the fourth straight game.
After being slowed by injuries, Bruce Ellington had a career-high eight receptions for 111 yards against Vanderbilt, reclaiming his spot as USC's No. 1 receiver. Nick Jones had 10 of his 11 receptions in USC's first two games, while Shaq Roland continues to progress into an elite SEC receiver.
The UCF secondary is small by SEC standard with the starting foursome on the depth chart averaging 190.8 pounds. Cornerbacks Jacoby Glenn (174 pounds) and Jordan Ozerities (191 pounds) have zero interceptions in the first three games. In fact, UCF has a single pick in 12 quarters of football.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Connor Shaw, RB Mike Davis, RB Brandon Wilds, WR Bruce Ellington, WR Nick Jones, TE Busta Anderson, LT Corey Robinson, RT Brandon Shell.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Deion Green, DT E.J. Dunston, MLB Terrance Plummer, OLB Chequan Burkett, SS Clayton Geathers, CB Jacoby Glenn, CB Jordan Ozerities.
1. USC RB Mike Davis or RB Brandon Wilds vs. UCF MLB Terrance Plummer.
2. USC WR Nick Jones and WR Bruce Ellington vs. UCF CB Jacoby Glenn and CB Jordan Ozerities.
3. USC C Cody Waldrop or Clayton Stadnik v. UCF DT E.J. Dunston.
COACH'S COMMENT: "It's a big game for us and a big game for Central Florida. We are looking forward to it, just like they are. It's supposed to be a good, hot day down there. It's going to take everybody playing their best if we are going to have a chance to beat Central Florida. We are going into it hoping that we can continue to improve from game to game and show a lot of improvement in this game this coming week." - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.
UCF OFFENSE v. USC DEFENSE:
Slowing down gunslinger quarterback Blake Bortles is the number one objective for the USC defense this week. If they don't, they risk suffering the same fate as Penn State two weekends ago when the UCF quarterback threw for 288 yards (most ever by a UCF quarterback against a BCS opponent) and three touchdowns on 20-of-27 passing in leading the Knights to a huge road victory.
Bortles, who has thrown for 4,833 yards and 38 touchdowns in his career, has made 27 appearances with 17 starts and is protected by an offensive line featuring three seniors, a redshirt junior and redshirt sophomore among the starting five.
Defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, pronounced by Spurrier as 'ready to go' after dealing with foot problems during the bye week, must apply pressure from the edge with Kelcy Quarles pushing through the middle in order to keep Bortles from getting too comfortable in the pocket. Penn State failed to register a sack on Bortles two weeks ago and paid a heavy price for their lack of success in getting to the quarterback.
However, USC is second in the SEC and 11th in the country with an average of 3.3 sacks per game. Clowney (23 career sacks) and Quarles have two sacks each, while Sutton has 1.5. Clowney need six sacks to catch USC all-time leader Eric Norwood (29) in that category.
Bortles, who has completed 50-of-70 passes for 816 yards and seven touchdowns this season, is the eight-cylinder engine powering a UCF offense that has eclipsed 30 points in every game this season. Three different receivers have 100-yard receiving games, including top pass catchers J.J. Worton (12 receptions for 175 yards) and Rannell Hall (11 for 212 yards).
When UCF coaches call a running play, Bortles usually hands off to Storm Johnson, who surged forward for a career high 117 yards rushing against Penn State. In three games, Johnson has 305 yards rushing and six touchdowns on 55 carries, an average of 5.5 yards per carry and two touchdowns per game.
Johnson ranks fifth in the NCAA with six rushing touchdowns and had a 58-yard scoring scamper against the Nittany Lions.
The linebacker corps for the Gamecocks saw another shift when Cedrick Cooper, healed up from a dislocated elbow, moved back to outside linebacker and will serve as Marcquis Roberts' backup at Will.
The USC defense has allowed less than 300 total yards twice this season. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward summed it up best on Thursday - if the Gamecock defense plays up to its capabilities, they should win the game. However, if they perform like they did at Georgia three weeks ago, USC will probably lose unless the offense cranks out 40-plus points.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Blake Bortles, RB Storm Johnson, WR J.J. Worton, WR Rannell Hall, LT Torrian Wilson.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Chaz Sutton, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Kaiwan Lewis, LB Marcquis Roberts, CB Jimmy Legree, CB Victor Hampton, FS Brison Williams.
1. UCF QB Blake Bortles vs. USC MLB Kaiwan Lewis and OLB Marcquis Roberts.
2. UCF WR J.J. Worton and WR Rannell Hall vs. USC CB Victor Hampton and CB Jimmy Legree.
3. UCF LT Torrian Wilson and RT Chris Martin v. USC DE Jadeveon Clowney and DE Chaz Sutton.
COACH'S COMMENT: "It's just like any game where you have an opportunity to see what you're about. You can look at yourself as far a football program and how you compare. South Carolina is a very good team that could have easily won the Georgia game. We are going to have to go out and play well on all sides of the ball, offense, defense and special teams. You win the game and you get great exposure and national attention. People will make judgments on your program, on the fan base and on a lot of different things, not just the football program." - UCF head coach George O'Leary.
Quarterback - Even
Running Back - Edge to USC
Wide Receiver - Even
Offensive Line - Edge to USC
Tight End - Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Edge to USC
Linebacker - Even
Secondary - Edge to USC
Special Teams - Edge to UCF
SYNOPSIS: Eight years ago, when USC and UCF last met on the gridiron, Steve Spurrier was making his widely publicized return to college football after three years (2002-04) away, two with the NFL's Washington Redskins. Meanwhile, UCF coach George O'Leary was just trying to win a game after suffering through a 0-11 campaign in his first year as UCF head coach in 2004. Today, USC has become a fixture in the national polls (52 straight weeks in AP Top 25 poll) with consecutive 11-win seasons in the books, while UCF has steadily grown into a Sunshine State power with three 10-win seasons in the last six seasons. In some ways, this is a dangerous game for the Gamecocks. But if they pay attention to the little things and minimize mistakes, they should be fine. Don't do what Arkansas did last week at Rutgers - build a comfortable lead before watching it collapse under an avalanche of errors in the late third and fourth quarters.
PREDICTION: Arguably, this matchup is more about the Gamecocks and how they approach it from a mental and physical standpoint than anything else. Top to bottom, they have better players and more depth than UCF. But if the defense fails to show up (see Georgia) or special teams fumble the ball away or display an utter lack of field awareness (see Vanderbilt), the Knights have a great shot to win. However, if the Gamecocks are able to put together four quarters equal in intensity and production on both sides of the ball to the first 25 minutes of the Vanderbilt game, they will roll to a nice road win, return to Columbia and start getting ready for six straight SEC contests. USC will win this game because they will overpower UCF on both lines of scrimmage - typically the shortcoming of most team in non-major conferences - and run the ball effectively all afternoon long. USC has won 17 straight regular season games against non-conference opponents for a reason - Spurrier forces the Gamecocks to prepare for each opponent the same.
The Pick: USC 37, UCF 24