Keys to the Florida-South Carolina game

Florida is looking to bounce back after the tough LSU loss against a South Carolina team riding high following an upset win over Georgia. UF is the better team and in isolation should win, but no games are ever played context-free. If the Gators are in the mood to let the Tigers beat them twice, then the Gamecocks are easily good enough to earn back-to-back top ten wins.

Here are the keys to the game as I see them.

Play the pass on third down

Excluding garbage time and counting sacks as passes, Florida runs the ball on 30.6% of third downs regardless of distance. For comparison Alabama runs on 32.4%, LSU runs on 36.5%, and Missouri runs on 38.7% of third downs. The Gators throw it a lot on third down, but not too much more than some other notable SEC teams.

South Carolina has run on 17.7% of third downs. Yeah, you read that right. They’ve run 14 times in 79 third down plays. Two of them were scrambles on pass plays last weekend, so it’s really more like 12 times in 79 plays for a 15.2% run rate.

Furthermore, eight of the 14 came with either one or two yards to go. Those are the only two distances on third down where the Gamecocks have run more than they’ve thrown. They’ve done five runs to two passes with one yard to go and three runs against two passes with two yards to go.

But wait, there’s more. Of the two non-scramble runs that came with five or more yards to go, one was a draw on 3rd & 15 and another was from the Kentucky 10-yard-line. On the latter topic, five of the runs including that one came inside field goal range, including two in overtime against Georgia.

So: if it’s third down and more than two yards to go and the Gamecocks aren’t in field goal range, they’re almost certainly going to throw.

Quarterback questions

It’s an open question how many people will be executing those third-down throws. True freshman Ryan Hilinski will start, but he isn’t 100% after missing a good chunk of last week’s win over Georgia. Redshirt freshman Dakereon Joyner is the backup, so it’s going to be a young player either way.

Whoever takes the reins, the Gamecocks mostly run a short passing attack. Jake Bentley only managed 4.7 yards per attempt in the opener against UNC, and Hilinski has been below six yards per attempt in all four of his SEC starts. He completed 75% of his throws against Georgia before going down to injury, but he still only managed 5.8 yards per toss. Being down a lot forced him into longer throws against Alabama, but he completed just 43% of his passes and therefore still ended up under six yards a pop.

Against UGA Hilinski was mostly reading out-to-in, looking for a receiver by the sideline and if need be switching to a second read in the middle. The only times he looked both left and right were when he was faking a toss one direction and throwing a screen the other way. He’s good for a true freshman, but he’s still getting the true freshman treatment.

South Carolina needs to hope that Hilinski stays in the game because their options dwindle with Joyner. Joyner is athletic — they’ve used him a few times as a receiver, even after Bentley went down — but the coaches clearly don’t trust his arm. The Gamecocks averaged a mere 3.4 yards per play against UGA with him in and only scored on the field goal in overtime. His offense is basically all runs and passes less than ten yards past the line of scrimmage.

Mucking it up

The forecast for Saturday calls for rain as the remnants of a tropical system from the gulf move towards the area. It’s not predicting a lot of wind, but the rain is supposed to start hours before kickoff. That could mean a sloppy field and the chance for Will Muschamp’s team to literally drag the game down into the mud.

Funny as it is to say it, the conditions could force South Carolina into a better game plan. The Gamecocks throw the ball a higher percentage of the time than the national average on both standard and passing downs. They do it a ton on third down as I mentioned above.

Thing is, they’re actually not bad at running. Excluding garbage time they go for 5.44 yards per carry when you take sacks out, and their stuff rate (percent of runs for zero or a loss) is 13.9%. The former is nearly identical to Auburn’s 5.45, and the latter is a lot better than AU’s 17.0%. Heck, their yards per pass play, not just the yardage from throws but including losses from sacks too, is 5.30. The Gamecocks hit a run of ten yards or more once every 7.5 carries, and their rushing success rate is a full ten percentage points higher than their passing success rate.

Again, you’re reading this correctly: a Muschamp offense is better at running than passing and still passes a lot. I don’t know what world this is either. If passing becomes tough in the rain, the Gamecocks will have to turn to the better half of their offense more.

Florida is not as well equipped to win such a contest. South Carolina has a lot of excellent guys up front, with Javon Kinlaw wrecking shop on the line with an excellent linebacking crew of D.J. Wonnum, T.J. Brunson, and Ernest Jones backing him up. They won’t be scared of the Gator offensive line. Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard are game time decisions, and there will be a real desire not to play them in a slopfest.

The Gamecocks played a ton of press coverage in the win last week because UGA’s receivers can’t separate. Florida has several who reliably can. If the Gamecocks try that again, UF could get some big gains in the passing game from beating the press — assuming they can throw at all.

It doesn’t sound like this will be a true monsoon game, but the Gators have to be smart. They can’t let this turn into a replay of 2016 Notre Dame-NC State where the Wolfpack tried nothing ambitious and just ran the ball and allowed the better Irish team to throw themselves to a loss. Look for Dan Mullen to go with Kyle Trask early but not be afraid to use as much Emory Jones as needed to move the ball on the ground and not blunder their way into dropping a second straight game if the rain is bad.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2