GAME NOTES: The 14th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks continue to pursue a spot in the SEC Championship as they host the Mississippi State Bulldogs at William-Brice Stadium for a cross-divisional matchup.
Mississippi State improved to 4-3 last week with a 28-22 home victory over Kentucky. The win was the second in a row and put MSU above the .500 mark for the first time this season. The Bulldogs lost their only two previous SEC games at Auburn (24-20) and versus LSU (59-26). This will be the team's first game outside of Starkville since Sept. 14. Coach Dan Mullen's squad has not had an easy road to this point as its first seven opponents have a combined 38-18 record.
Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks bounced back from a disappointing two-point loss at Tennessee, with a thrilling, 27-24, double-overtime victory over the previously unbeaten Missouri Tigers to conclude a three-game road trip last week. The win improved South Carolina to 4-2 in the SEC standings, leaving it as one of three teams in the Eastern Division with two losses to conference foes. The Gamecocks are still trailing Missouri (3-1), but are in good position as they have the luxury of playing at William-Brice Stadium for the rest of the season. After this week, Spurrier's team will have a bye to prepare for their final regular season SEC game of the season versus Florida. The Gamecocks current 14-game home winning streak is just one win shy of the program record set from 1978-80.
Although the Bulldogs are posting 30.1 points and 456 total yards per outing, they are ranked only 10th in the SEC in scoring offense and just one spot higher in total offense. They have been held under the 30-point mark in all but two games with the pair of high-scoring outputs coming in their routs of Alcorn State (51-7) and Troy (62-7). Dak Prescott performed well under center in last Thursday's victory over Kentucky, completing 23-of-34 pass attempts for 268 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The sophomore also added 33 rushing yards despite being sacked three times. On the season, Prescott has completed 57.3 percent of his throws for 1,158 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He is also leading MSU on the ground with 490 yards and eight scores on 80 carries.
LaDarius Perkins is the Bulldogs' second leading rusher at 56.3 ypg. MSU has shown it has plenty of options on the ground as seven different players have scored a rushing touchdown this season. The team's leading receiver, Jameon Lewis, has accounted for three of the rushing scores. He has racked up 30 receptions for 446 yards and four touchdowns through seven games. Lewis reached the end zone in three different ways in a single game for the second time this season as he reeled in a touchdown catch in the third quarter after registering passing and rushing scores in the opening half versus Kentucky.
MSU's strong defense was on display against the Wildcats, who were held to 325 total yards and finished 4-of-18 on third-down conversion tries. The Bulldogs rank 38th in the nation in scoring defense (22.9 ppg), and 30th in total defense (358.9 ypg).
Benardrick McKinney leads the way with 46 tackles, while Nickoe Whitley is a difference-maker in the secondary with three interceptions.
Although South Carolina is ranked ninth out of 14 SEC teams in scoring with 31.9 ppg, it has exhibited one of the most balanced attacks in the conference by rushing for 205.9 ypg and throwing for 269.2 ypg. The Gamecocks started Dylan Thompson at quarterback last week at Missouri as Spurrier intended to give Connor Shaw the game off due to a lingering knee injury. The offense struggled with Thompson under center as three of its first half drives ended with giveaways and another resulted in a turnover on downs. After a scoreless first half, Shaw took over at the start of the third quarter despite his injury. The quarterback change paid off as Shaw guided the Gamecocks back from a 17-0 deficit. He connected on 20-of-29 pass attempts for 201 yards in the crucial win.
Although Shaw entered the game in the second half, he tied his season-high with three touchdown passes and came up just one shy of his season-best 21 completions. South Carolina totaled 498 yards of total offense in the game.
"You watch and just see the type of player he is," said Mullen on Shaw. "Last week it was completely evident the type of player he is watching that game and what he means to that team. I think he manages the game extremely well. He does what he needs to do for his team to win the game. If it's run the ball he runs it, if it's hand it off he hands it off. I'm sure if they needed to for him to win a game he'll go throw for 500 yards and won't complain about it either. That to me is a manager and a winner at the quarterback position, and he does that very, very well."
Shaw's unexpected return was necessary as Mike Davis was held to only 2.7 yards per carry on 19 attempts by the Tigers' defense and lost a pair of fumbles. The lack of production by the sophomore tailback was uncharacteristic as he entered the game netting 6.7 ypc. Davis still found a way to help the cause as he set new career-highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (99). Despite the poor showing, Davis is still narrowly leading the SEC in rushing yards (930) and is tied for second with 10 touchdowns. His stay on top of the conference's leaderboard may expire soon as he is listed as questionable for Saturday due to an ankle injury he sustained on the team's final drive. Shon Carson will be the team's primary ball carrier if Davis is unable to play.
Bruce Ellington also finished the win at Missouri with a career-best 10 catches which went for 136 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The junior wideout now has five receiving touchdowns on the season to go along with his team-best 468 yards. Damiere Byrd (460 yards) and Nick Jones (203 yards) have all been steady contributors to the aerial attack.
The Gamecocks defense lived up to the lofty expectations placed upon them in the preseason against the Tigers. Missouri, which entered the game averaging 44.3 ppg and 513.4 ypg, was held to 17 points in regulation and 404 total yards in the contest.
USC is ranked third among SEC schools in yards allowed (350.2 ypg), but is seventh in points allowed (22.9 ppg). Due to his incredible total of 13 sacks in 2012, Jadeveon Clowney has had to deal with double and triple-teams throughout the course of the campaign. As a result, he has just two sacks on the season. Clowney has still been a factor with 6.5 TFL and seven QB hurries. Kelcy Quarles has thrived with all of the attention on Clowney and paces the team with 10 TFL and seven sacks.
"The Bulldogs have a good quarterback. They have an established line up front. They're just a good team all around," said Quarles on this week's matchup. "We have to come out here on our A-game and do what we need to do to get a win. We can't sleep on anybody going through the next couple games and Mississippi State is just a test in the road."
USC's defense has been even better at home, holding North Carolina, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to a mere average of 287.3 total yards. The Bulldogs have a few game breakers on the offensive side of the ball, but they will all need to be at their best to have a shot at an upset. MSU tends to disappear after halftime, which is never a successful recipe against elite competition. The Gamecocks hold an edge despite the injuries to Shaw and Davis due to a stellar defense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Carolina 27, Mississippi State 17