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Defensive Breakdown: South Carolina
Written by Hunt Palmer, Senior Writer   
Thursday, 11 October 2012 11:40

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The armor has been chinked. What looked like an invincible defense was thrashed last week in the second half thanks to a woefully skewed time of possession and rash of injuries on the Tiger defense. Now Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks come to town ready to make it two straight losses for LSU. Spurrier has adapted over time from the “fun and gun” to a more power rushing offense with a threat to make a big play through the air. This is a great matchup for a number of reasons. There a number NFL first rounders on the field here (Mingo, Montgomery, and Lattimore). Connor Shaw is a savvy quarterback, and the Tiger defense is out for blood. It’s going to be an awesome stage for football, and the talent and coaching will hold up its end of the bargain for sure.

LSU Defensive Line vs. South Carolina Offensive Line

This LSU group was fantastic for a half against Florida. There was really nowhere to run. Bennie Logan made the big play, stripping Jeff Driskel deep in Florida territory, and the Gator offense was swamped. As has been well documented, fatigue took over in the second half. They just got tired. It remains the strongest unit on the team, but it’s not without flaws. Playing for 37 minutes exposes those. Anthony Johnson continues to lead the way with 22 tackles on the season, but it’s the big plays that make him so good. He’s recorded six tackles for loss and two sacks. Those can be drive killers. When you consider that Sam Montgomery was a no show in Week 1, his season has been good since. His 6.5 tackles for loss are second on the defense to Kevin Minter. Montgomery spoke this week about how much this game means to him, being a South Carolinian. Logan has done nothing to hurt his NFL Draft stock this season, showing that same explosion off the ball and fantastic handwork. Same goes for Lavar Edwards who is still the surprise of the unit. At this point, though, you expect great play from the senior. Barkevious Mingo is getting a lot of attention when he’s on the field. His numbers are down, but he’s still a threat to make a huge play. The one sack is a bit of a disappointment, but I still saw a draft board this week with Mingo as the best defensive lineman in the draft. Now for some negative, I have not been impressed by the play of Ego Ferguson. He and Josh Downs have been the second group on the defensive front, and they haven’t been able to step up their play to rival Logan and Johnson. The drop off is apparent to me. Downs has eight tackles, Ferguson just five. For as many snaps as he’s played, Ferguson should have been in on more plays. Same with Jermauria Rasco. He’s played in the first half of every game and has made a total of three stops. That’s simply not great production. LSU is great up front, but that depth needs to come along.

South Carolina, not unlike LSU, has done a little bit of mixing and matching up front. The three middle men have been pillars, though. Senior center T.J. Johnson is a giant at 6-feet-6-inches and 319 lbs. Centers rarely come in that packaging. He’s bracketed by junior Ronald Patrick and sophomore A.J. Cann. Both of those guys are about 6-feet-3-inches and north of 300 lbs. It’s not an overly huge set of guards, but they’re good. The tackles have been in flux a bit. Through six games, the Gamecocks have used four different sets of tackles. It appears that Corey Robinson, a 6-feet-8-inch 337 lb. beast, has won the left tackle spot. The right side is now occupied by redshirt freshman Brandon Shell who began the season at left tackle. He’s another biggun at 6-feet-6-inches and 335 lbs. This group has been average in protecting quarterbacks. Connor Shaw is a fairly mobile young man, and still opponents have sacks South Carolina quarterbacks 14 times in six games. Also, South Carolina ranks just seventh in the league in rushing. You would think they’d be better there. With the tackle spots as solidified as they’ve been all season, this group would figure to get better, but it’s not quite the front that Florida played behind last week against the Tigers.

I was speaking with a South Carolina beat writer on Wednesday, and he said Shaw is masking some shortcomings on the offensive line. It’s a talented group, but they have not quite meshed yet. South Carolina did handle Georgia last week, so that’s progress, but LSU poses a different challenge. Georgia runs a 3-4 with huge defensive linemen. LSU is a 4-3 team with more speed. Those tackles are massive, but their feet will be tested against Montgomery, Mingo and Edwards. I also think Logan and Johnson are too quick for a center who stands 6-feet-6-inches. That’s a lot of body to get upright and active after snapping the ball. Johnson, the center, will likely get some help from his guards there, and that means some opportunities should open up for the Tiger ends. It’ll be tough for South Carolina to establish a ground game early in the game against this Tiger defensive line which will be sky high in this atmosphere. Spurrier likes to lean on teams late, though. LSU has to guard against what happened last week. Of course, the Tiger offense will have a lot to say about that. This is still a great LSU defensive line. It’s an above average South Carolina offensive front.

Advantage: LSU

LSU Linebackers vs. South Carolina Running Backs

By now you know about Kevin Minter. Twenty tackles in a joke. He is truly an elite SEC linebacker. His supporting cast is becoming a walking training room, though. Kwon Alexander is done for the year. He broke his ankle at the worst possible time as he was really starting to play well. His was, of course, filling in for Luke Muncie who is still dealing with a virus. He’s not been able to practice much and has lost a bunch of weight. Muncie will play this week, but we’ll see how his stamina is. On the other side, Lamin Barrow continues to play well. He had nine tackles last week which was overshadowed by Minter’s video game performance. Barrow is second on the team with 39 tackles. Lamar Louis and Deion Jones are now going to be called upon to play some in Muncie’s stead. They are both exceptionally fast runners who have big play ability .They also have to learn the defense and make sure they are in position when they aren’t running after a ball carrier. That’s a tough thing to do, and it’s what made Alexander so special. I still like the way this group is playing, but it just looks a little different now.

It didn’t take long on that opening Thursday night to know that Marcus Lattimore is healthy again. He’s back atop the league in rushing touchdowns with nine, and he’s averaging 91.5 yards per game. He’s also the Gamecocks’ leading receiver. This kid can really do it all. He’s fast, strong and can stick his foot in the ground to change direction. The scariest attribute Lattimore possesses is the way he can take over a game late. As a freshman, he carried it 40 times against Florida, and against Tennessee he carried it 29. That’s what Spurrier will do if he gets the chance. Kenny Miles is a short, change of pace back who has 27 carries, but Lattimore is obviously the one to watch.

This should be fun. Obviously we’ve talked about the lines and given the edge to LSU. This is the second layer to that equation. Minter spoke this week about being ready to play Lattimore and meeting the big back in the holes. As is generally the plan on the road, expect South Carolina to feel things out early by going to Lattimore. Minter was up to the task for three quarters last week. He’ll need help from his cohorts this time around. Another key for the guys outside is going to be covering him in the flat. I expect Barrow can do that, and the youngsters have the ability, too. They’ve just never done it. As a way to combat the Tiger pass rush, Spurrier may just try to isolate Lattimore on a young linebacker in the screen game. Could be interesting. The real story will be told in the second half of this game, just like it was last week. I think the Tiger defense is up to the task. That shows how much I think of Minter.

Advantage: PUSH

LSU Secondary vs. South Carolina Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers

Tough to talk bad about the Tiger secondary. Florida made no effort to challenge LSU through the air. I haven’t seen a ton of coverage busts or missed tackles. Craig Loston missed a little time last week, and Ronald Martin wasn’t great. He’s still learning and right now has the ability to make the big play and big mistake. I still think the staff wants to keep him out there to get better with time. Eric Reid only has one tackle for a loss this year. That’s a bit surprising. He did a great job of sneaking up on the edge runs last season. Tharold Simon and the Jalens (Collins and Mills) have done a pretty good job. I think a stiff challenge presents itself this week.

Connor Shaw is a tough little guy. He’s not a flashy thrower with a big arm. He’s not an explosive runner. He’s smart. He’s accurate. He’s tough, and he’s confident. As our friend Charles Hanagriff points out, Shaw is right out of the Spurrier mold. Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel come to mind. Shaw has been excellent when he’s been out there. Against Missouri he completed 20 of 21 throws for 249 yards and 2 scores. That’ll do. He can move the chains with his legs and leads the team like a real quarterback should (cough, cough Stephen Garcia). On the outside, Ace Sanders is the big play threat. He’s not Alshon Jeffrey in terms of production, but he’s a super athlete. Although Sanders has just 12 catches, three have gone for scores. Bruce Ellington, the point guard on the South Carolina hoops squad, leads the receivers with 13 catches for 227 yards. He’s a speedy little receiver with great hands. With the help of a 94 yard burst, Damiere Byrd averages almost 30 yards per catch. This is a receiving corps with a ton of speed and not a great deal of size. Spurrier loves to dial up crossing routes to get these guys the ball on the move with a chance to make a big play. That also puts less stress on Shaw’s arm which is a good one, not a great one. Dylan Thompson is the backup quarterback who has proven he can make some plays. Shaw went down with a hairline fracture in his upper back early in the season and Thompson was great in wins against East Carolina and UAB. If Shaw goes down, South Carolina still feels ok.

I don’t expect that the big time atmosphere will get to Shaw at all. He’s a veteran with a great presence about him. Spurrier doesn’t ask him to do too much. Get the ball out early and on target. The playmakers do the rest. Shaw has only thrown two interceptions on the year and is completing 75 percent of his throws. That’s all you can ask for. I think this is the toughest test the Tiger defensive backfield will have faced, even tougher than Washington which was a laugher. Most of that was due to pressure on Keith Price, though. I worry a bit about Simon’s straight-line speed in this one. I think he’s going to have to run a lot with these little dynamos from South Carolina. Then there is the question of freshmen dealing with Spurrier’s scheme. LSU is athletic enough, and they’ll get help from the defensive line. Someone has to find Sanders at all times. He’s awesome in the punt return game and can do the same with a hitch. I still think Reid is a stud and Loston has played well. Mills will get his chance to make a play or two in this one, and I think he will. He’s due for that to happen again. He’s going to be a really good one. I think both sides of this one make a big play or two.

Advantage: PUSH

So how does it all mesh together? I think LSU’s defense will dominate early. The game is too important and they know the Tiger offense is not very good. I think the defensive line dominates the point of attack and creates some third and longs for South Carolina early. Because Spurrier knows LSU won’t score a ton, he’ll dial down those third down play calls. Maybe some screens to Lattimore. It’ll be tough sledding for South Carolina in the first half. I think Shaw is a great leader who will pick up some first downs with his legs and will extend a couple of plays to move the chains through the air as well. I like the Tiger ends rushing the passer against less than stellar tackles. The battle starts in the second half. It all depends on how the Tiger offense performs in terms of time of possession. I think LSU loses there, and it makes things tough on the defense again. I can also see some turnovers on that side of things. LSU’s defense will play well. It’s one of the best in America. It needs help, though.

Prediction: USC 20, LSU 14

 
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