Steve Spurrier hasn't been able to deliver the same kind of offensive magic at South Carolina that he generated at Florida.
But as the Gamecocks coach has struggled to find difference-makers at quarterback and tailback, defense has become his team's calling card.
Of the 26 former Gamecocks on NFL rosters before the season started, 19 were defensive players.
This year's South Carolina defense has been one of Spurrier's best to date.
Kentucky just got through facing the nation's top two in total defense in Florida and Alabama. The Gamecocks don't quite measure up statistically to the Gators and Crimson Tide, ranking 14th in total defense (264.4 yards allowed per game). But South Carolina has faced arguably a tougher schedule than either Alabama or Florida, with road trips to North Carolina State (7-3 win) and Georgia (41-37 loss) along with an impressive 16-10 home win over then-No. 4 Mississippi.
UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips said South Carolina is faster across the board defensively than Florida and Alabama. While the Gators and Crimson Tide play with more traditional linebackers in the 250-pound range, South Carolina surrounds 6-foot-1, 252-pound All-Southeastern Conference senior linebacker Eric Norwood with a pair of speedy sophomores: Shaq Wilson (5-11, 210) and Antonio Allen (6-1, 202).
"The thing we're going to see is a lot more speed, more speed than even Florida had on defense," Phillips said. "Two of their linebackers are like strong safeties. It's like going against six defensive backs."
The Kentucky offensive line has slowly built a reputation for good pass protection. The Wildcats led the SEC and finished fourth in the nation in fewest sacks allowed last year with 13 and have allowed just five through four games this season.
Phillips said the offensive line will be facing its biggest challenge of the season against the South Carolina pass rush. Norwood leads the league in sacks with six, and defensive end Cliff Matthews is tied for second with four.
"It will be strength versus strength," Phillips said. "I think we've protected well so far this year, and we did most of last year, also. They've got two great pass-rushers. I'm anxious to see how we respond to the challenge."
The Cats are all too familiar with Norwood, who became a household name after returning two fumbles for touchdowns in South Carolina's nationally televised Thursday night win over Kentucky two years ago. South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward moves Norwood around, lining him up at strongside linebacker and weakside linebacker and moving him up to defensive end in passing situations.
"You've got to be conscious of where (Norwood) is and slide protection to him," Phillips said. "Getting him matched up against a (running) back is a no-no. Not only is he a pass-rusher, he can also cover. He's got two interceptions."
One of the reason's UK's sack numbers were so low last year was that quarterback Mike Hartline did a good job of getting rid of the ball when a play broke down. But last week against Alabama, Hartline got himself into trouble by trying to force things under pressure. His worst pass of the day (an interception right to linebacker Rolando McClain) came on a cross-field throw while being chased by a Crimson Tide defender. That was one of three picks on the day for Hartline.
Both Phillips and Hartline acknowledged that the QB is still trying to delicately balance managing the game and making enough plays to win games.
"You've got to exhaust all your possibilities, but a few times it should have been thrown away," Hartline said. "Don't get me wrong. I was trying to make plays, and sometimes you've just got to know when to give up on it. It's the toughest thing to do as a quarterback. I just did a poor job of taking care of the football."
Phillips said that last year, Hartline "wasn't really trying to make plays, he was just trying to make sure we didn't take sacks.
"Now he's trying to make plays. But now he's got to balance trying to make plays with getting rid of it like he did last year. Interceptions, that hasn't been us. We haven't thrown a lot of interceptions around here since we've been here, and for us to be not protecting the ball is a big concern."
■ Starting right tackle Justin Jeffries (Achilles injury) will not make the trip for the South Carolina game. Junior Brad Durham will start in Jeffries' place. Jeffries joins two other injured starters who will miss the game, senior cornerback Trevard Lindley (ankle) and junior cornerback Paul Warford (quadriceps).
■ Sophomore linebacker Danny Trevathan missed his second straight practice Thursday with flulike symptoms but is expected to play Saturday.
■ South Carolina starting tight end Weslye Saunders will miss Saturday's game because of an ankle injury. Saunders is the third-leading receiver for the 25th-ranked Gamecocks with 14 catches for 156 yards. Spurrier said freshman Justice Cunningham will get his first start in place of Saunders.
Saturday's game in HD
Insight Communications and Fox Sports South have worked out an arrangement to air Saturday's game in high definition.
Fox Sports South is carried on Channel 52 on standard cable. The game will be available in high definition on Channel 929.