Urban Meyer thought he was seeing the Florida Gators of old Saturday night when he watched the second half of South Carolina’s narrow loss to Arkansas. On two 90-yard drives in the second half, Coach Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks ran fades and corner routes to near perfection as they came back to nearly upset Arkansas in Columbia.
The way the Gamecocks were throwing the fade and the corner routes — Meyer estimated they threw 10-15 on those two drives — it was like watching the Gators back when Spurrier was the Florida coach. In those days the fade and the corner were staples of the Fun ‘N Gun offense.
“In the second half those two 90-yard drives were something and they were just fades and corner routes,” said Meyer after practice Tuesday.
South Carolina rallied in the second half behind quarterback Blake Mitchell, who came on in relief of starter Syvelle Newton. Mitchell completed 15 of 21 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns in his most extensive action since the third game of the season.
Mitchell’s outstanding relief effort complicated Florida’s defensive game planning. The Gators were well prepared to face Newton. When he’s in the game, the South Carolina offense isn’t all that different than Florida’s. The Gamecocks spread the field and give Newton the option to run or throw. He’s passed for 1,31t yards and 12 touchdowns while running for 330 yards and three touchdowns.
Tailback Cory Boyd, who is South Carolina’s third leading receiver (26 catches, 276 yards and a touchdown), has proven to be an effective runner from the spread sets. He leads South Carolina with 507 yards and four touchdowns. His backup, Mike Davis, has run for 252 yards.
Arkansas did a good job of stopping the spread and that brought on Mitchell, a drop back passer, in the second half. He got the Gamecock offense moving well and he’s been named the starter for Saturday’s game in Gainesville against the Gators.
“When Blake Mitchell is in there it’s a classic drop back passing game,” said Meyer, who said the Gators haven’t seen much of that this year.
No matter if the Gamecocks are in the spread with Newton or the classic drop back game with Mitchell, the focus of the offense doesn’t change all that much. It’s still about getting the ball to the wide receivers, a group that Meyer thinks are more talented than any the Gators have faced this year.
Wide receiver Sidney Rice, who burned the Gators badly last year in Columbia, caught seven passes for 126 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas and Kenny McKinley caught seven for 87 yards and a score. South Carolina’s third wideout, Freddie Brown, had four catches for 50 yards. The Gamecocks also have Noah Whiteside back from injury and he’s a tremendous talent on the outside.
For the season, Rice has 44 catches for 686 yards and seven touchdowns while McKinley has 33 for 545 and three TDs.
“I think Rice is the best in the SEC,” said Meyer after practice Tuesday. “I think number 11 (McKinley) is close to being in the top five.”
Rice is an angular 6-4, 200-pounder that can go up and get the ball. McKinley is faster than Rice and at 5-11, 180 pounds, he’s still taller than the Florida corners. Meyer is well prepared for three and four-wide sets that include Brown (6-2) and Whiteside (5-10).
The pressure will be on Florida’s rather smallish cornerbacks and Meyer knows he’s got to find ways to help them out. .
“Ryan Smith (5-10, 170) and Reggie (Lewis, 5-10, 190) are our top two [corners], Tremaine (McCollum, 5-9, 180) is the third,” said Meyer. “I don’t know how much we like those matchups so we’re doing a variety of things. That’s going to be a big part of it. It certainly can’t be a game where you say, ‘you got him, you got him, you got him’ … you can’t do that.”
Meyer has already told McCollum in front of the entire team that he’s going to have to play the game of his life against South Carolina.
“Tremaine’s going to play the most football he’s played in a game probably in his career,” said Meyer. “He’s been here about four years and now he’s on a team that is involved in a championship race playing South Carolina at home and he’s going to be playing 50-60 plays. I’d rather not thing about it. Just go and play and he’s been playing well.”
It will be a chess match between Spurrier, who is still the top offensive mind for the passing game in college football, and Florida’s defensive coordinators, Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong, who know they will have to mix up Florida’s coverage and pressure patterns.
“There are a lot of people that say drop eight and we’re also going to pressure him,” said Meyer. “If you say you’re just going to pressure, you can’t do that. You have to mix it up pretty well.”
One way the Gators can neutralize the South Carolina passing game is to get some hard hits early on the quarterbacks and the wide receivers. It’s the kind of game that Reggie Nelson will need to show up big in the middle of the field and Meyer says that every team the Gators play has to “know where number one [Nelson] is at all times” because he’s Florida’s most devastating hitter.
“Like any football player you whack them and they start looking where they got whacked from,” said Meyer. “We have to hit the quarterback and we have to hit the receivers. Number four [Rice] is a big kid, hard one to sting.”
Reminded that Nelson lowered the boom on Georgia tight end Martez Milner (6-4, 260) early and often enough that he dropped three critical passes against the Gators in Jacksonville, Meyer grinned and said, “Oh yeah, he got greased. Good point!”
MARSH MAY PLAY: There still hasn’t been a decision about burning the redshirt on freshman defensive end Lawrence Marsh. The 6-5, 270-pounder from Augusta, Georgia, has said he’s fine with whatever decision the Florida coaching staff makes.
Since arriving in Gainesville, Marsh has made consistent improvement and he’s been the most consistent defensive player on the scout team. He had a good practice Tuesday.
“He did pretty good today,” said Meyer. “He’s going to be a really good player. I’m really pleased with him. He’s a much better player than he was when he got here and you love to see that out of young players.”
TALENTED GAMECOCKS: Meyer isn’t buying into those theories that South Carolina lacks talent. Writers and football analysts have been trying to sell the notion that South Carolina isn’t as talented as the top teams in the SEC but Meyer totally disagrees.
“I hear people say things something about talent and that’s a very talented team,” said Meyer, who noted that South Carolina had as many defensive players drafted last year as the Gators.
While mentioning that the Gamecocks aren’t as talented on defense as LSU, whom Meyer says is the most talented team in the SEC, he noted, “They’re in the top half of the conference in terms of talent.”
Not only are the Gamecocks talented, they’re playing with a level of confidence at this stage of the season that wasn’t evident early on.
“You didn’t see that [confidence] early on,” said Meyer, who said that Spurrier is “a great coach getting the best out of them.”