Well so much for that whole “backup quarterback gives us a chance” thing. Last week Kentucky made Florida rookie QB Tyler Murphy look like a Heisman candidate as he completed pass after pass, after pass after pass. He didn’t post gaudy numbers, but he managed the game far better than most people anticipated.
This week the Cats could face another backup quarterback after South Carolina senior Connor Shaw suffered a shoulder injury last weekend at Central Florida. Junior Dylan Thompson looked poised to step in and play, but head coach Steve Spurrier announced Wednesday that Shaw would start. The initial diagnosis is a sprained shoulder and he was expected to miss two to three weeks. Now with the possibility that his return just seven days later is being rushed, we still could see a backup somewhere along the way.
Either way, you cannot expect the Gamecocks offense to skip a beat as worst case scenario is Thompson starts. And he has more than enough strength and mental toughness to power past the Cats, especially with as good a running game as the Cocks have to compliment him.
This weekend will be the first game Kentucky has played where the opponent boasts a well-balanced and lethal offensive attack from the air and the ground. Western Kentucky is balanced but not nearly as effective, Miami is Miami, and Louisville prefers the pass, while Florida prefers the run. South Carolina does it all. And that is going to be a huge test for the Kentucky defense that let off the gas a little after a promising showing in week three against the Cardinals. It’s not going to get any easier after this with Alabama on the horizon either, so they might as well figure it out now.
In the passing game after Shaw’s injury early last week, Thompson stepped in and threw for 261 yards on 15 completions with one interception. He also ran for a touchdown. Before going down Shaw was putting up good numbers, averaging 220 yards through the air in the team’s first three games, and had already collected six passing TD’s. Part of his arsenal is the ability to scramble, rushing for an average of 67 yards per game, and that is just enough of a wrinkle to keep defenses honest. Shaw isn’t nearly as dynamic a quarterback as a Teddy Bridgewater is, a quarterback Kentucky has already seen this season, but he could be considered a poor man’s Bridgewater.
Exit Marcus Lattimore, insert Mike Davis. While Davis might not have the same level of explosiveness as his predecessor he makes up for it in power between the tackles and breakaway speed. Davis is a true sophomore who saw plenty of time behind Lattimore last season, and that experience paid off as he catapulted up the depth chart in the spring and now owns the starting tailback spot. He currently sports 508 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns on 71 carries, good for a dominating 7.1 yards per carry. Connor Shaw is second on the team in rushing with 232 yards, so with his injury likely still lingering expect Davis to really rack up the touches.
Out wide catching passes are Bruce Ellington (the tiny little guard on the basketball team), Nick Jones, and Damiere Byrd; nobody who really makes your knees tremble, but there is plenty of play-making ability and overall speed out there to carve up a secondary that isn’t prepared. If there is one thing to really give you confidence it’s the height advantage: Byrd is 5-9, Ellington is 5-9, and Jones is 5-7. Every opposing Kentucky pass defender is taller, so that should eliminate a lot of corner fades and toss-up plays that might come from sideline. If the secondary is going to get beat, it’ll be deep and long, and getting burned there really hasn’t been a huge issue for the Cats thus far. Anticipate an interception or two from the corners and safeties.
Kentucky’s offense has really bottomed out and is as stagnant as we’ve seen all year. Granted the team was facing an elite Florida defense last week, but the unit has got to start moving the chains, plain and simple. Part of the reason the defense has been slipping has to do with the offense’s inability to stay on the field. Last week the team was 1-for-8 on 3rd down and averaged 3.7 yards per play. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown has to figure out a way to get the team in more 3rd-and-managable situations, and decide on which quarterback he likes more, because we all can see the two-QB system isn’t paying off. Judging from practice notes, it seems Stoops and Brown are starting to favor one over the other — though they won’t say who just yet. Whether it’s Whitlow or Smith, we need to see one or the other lead a number of series’ to get comfortable and go from there.
Consider the Wildcats preseason defensive projections and you likely recall the prognostication was dreadful. If you asked most people, you probably would have heard without hesitation the offense would be far and away the better unit. But with Kentucky currently owning the 52nd-ranked defense versus the 62nd-ranked offense, things are a little different than what we expected. Being No. 52 isn’t something to write home about, but it’s a far cry from where we were this time last year. The defense will have a tall order trying to slow down both the Gamecocks passing and running games, but they’ll have a much easier time if the offense can figure out a way to put up some points and conduct a sustained drive.
With the announcement that Connor Shaw would start against Kentucky, the final breath of air on any kind of upset bid was knocked out of the gut of the Wildcats. Not that too many people were calling it in this one anyway, but if there were any glimmer of hope because of Shaw’s absence, it is now vanished. Steve Spurrier doesn’t like losing to Kentucky, and there is a good chance he’s still bitter about the loss in 2010. Suffice it to say Kentucky will have better odds to win ballgames than this weekend.