South Carolina is 6-2 for the third time in four seasons. It’s at this point when things went south previously for Steve Spurrier’s team.
The 18th-ranked Gamecocks have an outside chance of wrapping up the SEC East division title on Saturday night when they host No. 17 Arkansas and conference passing leader Ryan Mallett.
South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 SEC) is close to reaching its first SEC title game. The Gamecocks can clinch this weekend with a victory and a loss by second-place Florida to lowly Vanderbilt.
A win by the heavily favored Gators, though, would set up a showdown next week in Gainesville with the Gamecocks for the East crown regardless of how South Carolina fares against Arkansas (6-2, 3-2).
That has caused Spurrier to make sure his team is focused on the task at hand, although his fan base has called on the coach to rest some of his stars.
“We talked briefly about it Monday, that this is Arkansas week and next week we’ll talk about the Florida game,” Spurrier said. “We all know what that’s about and we’ll wait till next week to talk about it.”
One thing also in his players’ minds is the Gamecocks’ poor finishes in past seasons. They lost their final five games to finish 6-6 in 2007, the final three games the next season to finish 7-6 and four of five after last year’s 6-2 start.
“It’s in the back of all our minds, especially senior guys because it’s our last year and we’ve done something so special so far,” tight end Patrick DiMarco said. “We’re not going to let things slip out of hands, though. We’re going to keep driving to reach team goals.”
The Gamecocks allow 259.9 yards per game through the air for the worst mark in the SEC, and that’s sure to be tested by Mallett. The Arkansas quarterback was named SEC offensive player of the week after throwing for a school-record 409 yards and three touchdowns in last Saturday’s 49-14 win over Vanderbilt.
Mallett, though, will be without his top receiver for the rest of the season. Greg Childs, who has team highs of 46 catches, 659 yards receiving and six touchdown receptions, suffered a patella tendon injury against the Commodores and is out for the year.
“That’s definitely tough for us because Greg is an awesome player,” defensive end Damario Ambrose said. “He’s very dynamic, fast and can jump out the gym. It’s tough to be losing him, but we have tons of other receivers on our team that can step up.”
Childs was one of three Arkansas receivers to miss time against Vanderbilt. Joe Adams, the team’s second-leading receiver, missed the entire game with an ankle injury he suffered against Ole Miss. Jarius Wright, the team’s third-leading receiver, missed action briefly in the second half after being on the receiving end of a big hit and suffering from dehydration.
Sophomore Chris Gragg and freshman Julian Horton combined for four catches for 113 yards in place of the starters, and eight Razorbacks caught passes from Mallett.
“We do feel like we have good depth and we have different guys we can get the ball to,” coach Bobby Petrino said. “They’ll look forward to the opportunities.”
Although the South Carolina pass defense is poor, the Gamecocks possess a strong pass rush. Defensive linemen Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor have combined for 12 1/2 sacks, and form a terrific unit along with preseason All-SEC defensive end Cliff Matthews.
“Defensively, our biggest challenge is their front four,” Petrino said. “They’re very, very good on the front four. We have to do a good job blocking in the run game and blocking in the pass game.”
Spurrier openly discussed the fact that he wants to try to run the ball with freshman Marcus Lattimore to keep Mallett and the Arkansas offense off the field. Lattimore rushed for a season-high 184 yards in last week’s 38-24 win over Tennessee, and ranks third in the SEC with 11 rushing touchdowns.
“He’s an outstanding back that has natural vision,” Spurrier said. “Obviously, he makes cuts that he doesn’t think about before he does it, he just does it and that’s what the great ones have the ability to do.”
Arkansas has won three of the last four meetings, winning 33-16 last season. Mallett completed 23 of 27 passes for 329 yards, but was the held without a touchdown pass for the only time in his Razorbacks’ career.
Stephen Garcia was 20 of 34 for 327 yards, one touchdown and one interception for the Gamecocks in the loss. The 327 yards are the third-highest total of his career.