South Carolina to test Kentucky's run-stopping ability

jsmith3@herald-leader.comOctober 4, 2013 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

When things are off kilter for South Carolina's offense, it's not Coach Steve Spurrier's old Fun 'n' Gun the Gamecocks turn to, it's the run, run, run.

Last season trailing Kentucky by 10 points at halftime, South Carolina didn't take to the air, it stayed on the ground and gashed the UK defense for nearly 100 yards running the same play over and over again.

The Gamecocks scored on four of their six second-half possessions and ran all over UK, scoring 31 unanswered points.

It's a memory that still haunts some Cats defenders as they travel to Columbia to face No. 13 South Carolina (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday night.

"We really just didn't know how to fit it right," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "That's a challenge that we couldn't defeat last year. We just didn't know how to stop the power."

And when a team can't stop the power run, where the running back waits patiently behind his blockers until the hole is there, it's demoralizing.

"You just feel like you can't stop it," Williamson continued. "It's just like they're overpowering you when you can't stop that power play."

While Kentucky's defense isn't where it wants to be, Coach Mark Stoops thinks the Cats' most dramatic improvements have come at stopping that key play.

"Some of the base run plays that we need to improve on defending or you're never going to be good, we improved," Stoops noted after the Florida loss.

It's been a serious point of emphasis for the defensive coaches, especially going into league play.

"That's a huge thing because teams are going to keep pounding it and pounding it to you every play," Williamson said. "That's an emphasis they hit us with after we played Western (Kentucky) that we've got to stop the power. We've really been working hard on that in practice and it's been showing up in games."

The Cats' defensive statistics don't scream dramatic improvement. They are the league's second-worst team against the run, allowing opponents to rack up 200.8 yards a game, but many of those came on big-yardage plays, like the 67-yard run by Matt Jones a week ago against Florida.

"Really, our weakness in that game was some one-back runs more than anything — quarterback had a long run, a one-back run," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "The running back got to the edge in a one-back run, but the power run game is where I think we've improved."

They're about to find out just how much improvement they have made against a team that is balanced, but relies heavily on those power running plays to get it out of offensive jams.

South Carolina, the fourth-best rushing offense in the SEC at 224.8 yards a game, hasn't rushed for fewer than 220 yards in any game this season.

In the Gamecocks' win over Central Florida last week, each of star Mike Davis' touchdowns came out of the power run. They didn't run in the I-formation once in the first half, but ran that formation 24 times in the second half, gaining nearly 7 yards a carry with it.

"We're down 10-0 and we don't know what's going to happen in the second half and he breaks about a 55-yarder for a TD that really got us right back in the game," Spurrier said of Davis, who leads the conference and is 10th nationally in rushing with 508 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 7.15 yards a carry.

"So certainly that gives you a chance to win when you can run the ball, and a running back like Mike Davis. ... He is a good back and we've got to keep giving it to him."

Against North Carolina this season, Davis had a 75-yard touchdown run out of the power play.

His big-play capability is impressive, Stoops said.

"He's going to be a challenge," Stoops said of Davis. "He may not be that tall, but he's a load. He's got very good balance and very good vision, so he's tough to bring down. Have a lot of respect for Mike."

But the head coach is starting to have more respect for his team's ability to at least slow the running game, especially when the Gamecocks go to their power run.

The players are getting more confident in their ability to power down the power run.

"I feel like this year, we really improved on that," Williamson said. "We'll definitely be ready for it."

Junior defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree said the Cats (1-3, 0-1 SEC) have a better plan to attack the run.

"It's the same people on the field, just different schemes," Dupree said. "The coaches have just put us in better position to be successful.

"I feel way better that we can stop the run because we've proven that we can. We've just got to continue to get better each game."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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