LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will try to make it three wins in a row against South Carolina at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Wildcats (1-2) defense is 122nd in the country in yards given up per game while the Gamecocks (2-1) offense ranks 123rd in yards gained per game. Something will have to give.
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina for SEC Country. We caught up with Mike for a Q&A on the Gamecocks and how he expects Saturday to play out.
Q: What have you seen out of Brandon McIlwain and what kind of trust does the staff have in him as a true freshman?
Mike: The most noticeable thing about McIlwain is how he has handled himself through the early portion of this season. He carries himself with confidence and coolness, which has carried over to his teammates. On the field, I’ve seen a freshman quarterback with a lot of talent. You see some brilliant flashes and then some really poor passes, which is what you expect. He’s a true dual-threat, who opens up the run game more for South Carolina. Throwing down the field with more accuracy and consistency should come along. As for trust, the coaches have put the whole playbook out there for him, according to what players have said as recently as Tuesday. Having enrolling early certainly helped him, but McIlwain has a lot of belief in himself and I think that has the coaches backing him confidently as he heads into his second start.
Q: This is already South Carolina’s third SEC game, all coming away from home. Has the road-heavy schedule to start the season affected the team at all?
Mike: I don’t think it has affected the Gamecocks all that much. It certainly is a tough first month for a team with a freshman quarterback and a lot of inexperience across the board. But being tested with so many road games early can be a valuable growth experience for a young team. One thing Will Muschamp preached to his players during fall camp was handling being “comfortably uncomfortable.” Going on the road three times in conference games early in the season is that without question. So, I think it has allowed USC to take some lumps early on and that should benefit down the road with a home-heavy back portion of the schedule — aka the entire month of October is spent in Columbia.
Q: Kentucky hasn’t been able to stop the run and it struggled with a dual-threat quarterback last week. What kind of game plan do you expect from South Carolina’s offense?
Mike: It’s an interesting matchup in that sense. South Carolina’s rushing attack has been bad, mostly because the offensive line has been poor and hit by a pair of injuries. Still, with McIlwain as the quarterback, South Carolina has more options and plays for the run game now. I would expect the Gamecocks to look to use the zone read to give McIlwain chances to use his legs. David Williams also started to emerge more last week at running back, while A.J. Turner has had moments where his talent was clear. So, getting creative in the run game would be what I expect to see South Carolina do early as it seeks to get more flow to the offense, which has been mediocre. Assuming Deebo Samuel comes back from injury, that will open up the pass game more as well. But tight ends are a focal point in the passing attack with co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper as well.
Q: How has the program changed in Will Muschamp’s first year?
Mike: The overall vibe of the program is one that has a sense of optimism, but it’s how they operate on a daily basis. The tempo in practice is faster and the expectation for how players perform in practice have been two important changes and focuses. Obviously, a major on-field improvement is the defense is playing significantly better than it did last season. I think that is coming from a lot of players buying into what Muschamp and his staff are doing as much as anything.
Q: How do you see Saturday playing out?
Mike: I think the game gets into the low-30s, high-20s because both defenses should have some issues even with the iffy offenses. I figure Kentucky is going to be able to attack the edges of the South Carolina defense if it wants to, as the secondary is very vulnerable. I also think they will have problems with Johnson’s running abilities, but even more with Boom Williams. I think he will be a major issue for South Carolina. If South Carolina can win on the offensive line for the first time all season and tackle well in space, I like their chances in this game. The only problem is, well, those have been two of the problems with this Gamecocks team through three games. But McIlwain is starting to settle in and just needs to find more consistency to really emerge at quarterback.