Offensive wizards match wits once again.
(Photo by Acid Reign.)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s Auburn gameweek again, and it’s time to get the 2nd half of the season kicked off! Frankly, it was an awful feeling last weekend. We were watching several SEC blowouts, and meanwhile our Tigers did not play. I think everyone’s been chafing since the loss at Starkville, and we need to see this team get back to action.
This week’s opponent is South Carolina, a team that’s been mostly disappointing this season. The past five seasons have seen some curious scheduling from the SEC office. This will mark the fourth meeting between the Tigers and the Gamecocks in the past five seasons. Meanwhile, Auburn has played Missouri, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida just once each during that stretch.
Lest one simply pencil in a win for the Tigers this week, I think one must look at the psychology of both teams. Auburn is coming off a disappointing loss but still has championship goals in front of the team. This is a must-win game if Auburn hopes to return to Atlanta to play for the SEC Title. Both Mississippi teams are still undefeated, and Alabama is just a single game back. LSU lurks with two SEC losses. Should Auburn sustain a second loss at this point, they’d be virtually eliminated. Alabama gets a crack at MSU and LSU, Ole Miss still has to play MSU and LSU, and MSU has Bama and Ole Miss left. Right now, I’d say that one or the other Mississippi team has a good shot at finishing either undefeated or with just a single loss. A two-loss Auburn team would be unable to catch the hot team from the Magnolia State.
South Carolina comes into Auburn playing only for bowl position. The Gamecocks have been all but eliminated from the SEC East race, having suffered three SEC losses already, one of them to front-running Missouri. A win would help South Carolina secure a better bowl bid, and I think Steve Spurrier would really like to get his first win against Auburn wearing the garnet and black. The Gamecocks will feel little pressure coming into this game and can settle down and try to do what they do. All of the pressure will be on Auburn. One hugely helpful factor in the Tigers’ favor is that they’ll be playing at home in front of a raucous blue-clad fan base.
Emotions aside, how do the teams stack up? As might be expected with 3 Gamecock losses, the stats mostly favor Auburn. South Carolina is giving up 181.7 rushing yards per game, and that’s including games against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Furman. Last week, South Carolina gave up 211 rushing yards to Furman! Might this be the week Auburn’s running game really takes off?
It’s not just run defense that has been worrisome for South Carolina. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 63 percent of their passes, for 7.1 yards per pass, 9 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. All told, South Carolina has given up 421 yards per game on defense. The last 4 Gamecock opponents, Vandy, Missouri, Kentucky and Furman have scored 110 points. That’s 27.5 points per game given up, against a slate that isn’t exactly murderer’s row!
Folks have been lamenting a lack of an Auburn pass rush this season. Auburn has just 12 sacks on the season and 43 quarterback hurries in 6 games. Contrast that to the Carolina defense, which has just 8 sacks and 19 quarterback hurries in 7 games. In close losses to Missouri and Kentucky, the key factor was that Tiger and Wildcat quarterbacks could stand in the pocket with impunity late in games and lead their teams down the field.
Offensively, this Carolina team more closely resembles the scrappy late ‘aughts Spurrier teams rather than the high-octane Garcia/Lattimore/Jeffery/Shaw machine of recent years. Mike Davis is a capable running back, who is averaging 94.6 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry. Pharoah Cooper and Nick Jones make for a decent receiving tandem. Quarterback Dylan Thompson has been serviceable throwing the ball, connecting on 61 percent of his passes for 7.7 yards per pass. He’s got 15 touchdown passes against 6 interceptions. Those are respectable numbers but not what you’d expect of a Spurrier-coached quarterback. Unlike recent South Carolina quarterbacks, Thompson has been no threat on the ground, totaling negative 19 rushing yards. The Auburn defense has been chasing mobile quarterbacks for much of the season, and I suspect they might relish a chance to rush a more stationary guy.
Gamecock special teams have been mostly solid, but they have given up 2 kick returns for touchdowns this season. Depending upon wind conditions, we’ll likely see the Carolina kickoff specialists trying for touchbacks. Landon Ard has 17 touchbacks on 36 kickoffs, and Zack Cimaglia has 7 on 11 kickoffs. Veteran kicker Elliot Fry has been nearly automatic kicking field goals, hitting 12 of 13. Punter Tyler Hull is solid with a 42-yard average. Carolina return men haven’t been much of a threat, while Auburn has Corey Grant, Quan Bray and others who are a threat to take any kick to the house.
In Auburn Saturday night, I expect to see a Tiger team looking to really tune up the offense. South Carolina will have a few plays on offense, but barring a total Auburn offensive collapse, they Gamecocks will be hard pressed to keep up. Like every other team Auburn has played, expect the Gamecocks to stack the line of scrimmage to stop the run game. Auburn will have to throw it some, and despite consternation from some Auburn factions, Auburn has had a lot of explosive plays doing that this season. Nick Marshall really has had only one glaring turnover this season, losing the ball on the Arkansas goal line after a long run. Marshall hasn’t lost a ball since then. On his 3 interceptions, 2 were batted at the line, and he was hit as he was throwing late against Mississippi State. Reportedly, Auburn has worked extensively the last two weeks on solutions to the batted passes.
War Eagle, folks! The hay is in the barn on this game, as Pat Dye liked to say. This game will kick off at 6:30 PM, and it will be televised on the SEC Network. Tiger fans are encouraged to wear blue for this game and to make a lot of noise when South Carolina has the ball. We’ll have our usual open thread up Saturday morning here at trackemtigers.com, and as always feel free to drop in, enjoy and comment upon the day’s events. War Eagle, and let’s demolish those Gamecocks!
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