Columbia, SC. – When the Arkansas Razorbacks square off against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday two teams in search of their 2012 college football identity will be on the field.
Both teams entered the 2012 college football season with outside shots at playing for a BCS National Championship. Arkansas’ hopes were quickly dashed with a second quarter injury to senior quarterback Tyler Wilson resulting in a loss to unranked Louisiana-Monroe.
South Carolina had to wait until their seventh and eighth games of the year before both their national title hopes and SEC East title hopes were taken away by back-to-back losses to LSU and Florida. By week nine their top offensive playmaker, Marcus Lattimore, arguably the best player on the Gamecocks roster, dislocated his left knee against Tennessee ending his once promising junior campaign leaving the remainder of the season an unknown for South Carolina.
At 4-5 Arkansas is battling to stay alive for a bowl berth while South Carolina (7-2) still remains relevant in the BCS standings. But without Lattimore all eyes are on how the Gamecocks will finish their season without their top player.
There is no secret about the Arkansas Razorbacks success; it lives and dies with Tyler Wilson. The preseason All-SEC quarterback is third in the conference in total passing yards (2,526) and fourth in passing touchdowns (16) despite missing seven quarters of action thus far in 2012.
Wilson has four games of 300 plus yards passing including a 419 yard performance against Rutgers. Over the past four games Wilson’s yards per game average has dipped to 292.75 after averaging 338.75 over his first four games but the Razorbacks have found a running game led by senior running back Dennis Johnson.
Johnson started the season slowly battling injuries and splitting carries with preseason All-SEC running back Knile Davis. Davis has been slowed by injuries and appears to be out for a second straight game (hamstring) giving Johnson the lion’s share of the ground game workload.
Over the past four games Johnson has totaled 428 rushing yards, averaging 107 yards per game, with seven rushing touchdowns and one receiving score. Johnson did not receive double digit carries in a game until the sixth game of the season.
On the other side of the ball, Marcus Lattimore led South Carolina in rushing (662 yards), receiving (26 receptions, 173 yards), and total touchdowns 11 (all rushing). Now fifth year senior running back Kenny Miles will attempt to pick up the gapping hole left in the Gamecocks’ offense without Lattimore.
The other offensive force for South Carolina is junior quarterback Connor Shaw. Shaw is second on the team in total rushing yards with 311 and is ranked No. 10 in the SEC in passing yards with 1,338.
In USC’s last game Shaw was forced to win the game against Tennessee with his arm. He threw for 356 yards, a season-high, on 22 of 32 attempts with three touchdowns.
Arkansas has had a problem with duel-threat quarterbacks during the 2012 season (see Louisiana-Monroe, Rutgers, and Texas A&M). Their young and inexperienced secondary could face another uphill climb against Shaw. The only hitch in the Gamecocks’ plan could be Shaw’s gimpy foot.
Shaw sprained his ankle during the Tennessee game, bad enough that Spurrier said Shaw would not have played had the Gamecocks not been on a bye last week.
The question for fans of the Razorbacks and Gamecocks is just how bad is Shaw’s sprained ankle and how much will that injury effect his ability to plant and throw accurately or tuck the ball and run to help move the chains.
Shaw is not the only ailing USC star with a foot injury entering the game. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will supposedly have surgery on his foot. The injury has not limited Clowney from being a force to deal with on the field, 8.5 sacks on the season.
Arkansas’ offensive line will have to hold up against South Carolina for the Hogs to have any shot. Tennessee was the first passing team the Gamecocks faced this year and quarterback Tyler Bray torched their defense for 368 yards with four touchdowns. Give Wilson time and he can do the same for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas has been stout against the run this year. Kenny Miles is no Marcus Lattimore but who is? Sophomore running back Brandon Miles may make his first appearance of the 2012 season this weekend, wasting a medical redshirt season. USC may need both backs to make up for what Lattimore normally brings to the field.
The big question still remains, how effect will Shaw be with a sprained ankle? If he’s sharp he could carve the Razorback secondary to pieces.
The Razorbacks will start two true freshman at linebacker against USC. If Shaw is smart he will dink and dunk on match-ups against the freshman in the passing game leaving a young and confused linebacker unit biting on any fakes making room for the running game three to four yards down field.
Cobi Hamilton leads the SEC in receptions (69) and receiving yards (1,077). Bruce Ellington leads the Gamecocks with 366 receiving yards on 23 receptions with three touchdowns.
Damiere Byrd is the big play threat for the Gamecocks. He only has 12 catches but has stretched those receptions into 303 yards for a 25.3 yard per catch average. Ace Sanders makes a nice third option in USC’s passing attack. Sanders is more of a possession receiver (24 receptions, 270 yards) but his five touchdowns makes him a red zone target Shaw trusts.
USC 28 – Arkansas 24
This is another Arkansas game that they could win put you never know which Razorback team will show up. If Wilson has time to throw all bets are off.
South Carolina is coming off a bye with FCS team Wofford next; the Gamecocks will not be caught looking past Arkansas especially since the Hogs have won three in a row and five of the last six against South Carolina.
Game time: 11 a.m. CT
Location: Williams-Brice Stadium