COLUMBIA, S.C. – Atlanta area native D.J. Smith fondly remembers the sound of ringing cowbells at his little league football games.
Any feelings of nostalgia might dissipate, however, when Smith takes the field Saturday night at Davis Wade Stadium. Those cowbells are going to be a little louder when South Carolina tries to hand Mississippi State a second straight loss to start the season.
“Probably a lot louder,” Smith said, with a smile. “A lot louder.”
Preparing for that environment has been on the agenda all week for coach Will Muschamp, as he readies the Gamecocks for a second-straight SEC road game.
“We have crowd noise at every practice and we practice with crowd noise on offense and defense, on both sides of the ball,” Muschamp said. “That’s something we started probably the seventh or eighth practice in fall camp. We did it throughout spring so it ought to be something we’re able to operate pretty well with.”
Smith’s heard Starkville stories from his buddy, former Mississippi State QB Elijah Staley, who spent two years with the Bulldogs before transferring to Tyler Junior College.
To make matters worse, the Bulldogs’ wounds from a season-opening loss to South Alabama have been festering for the last seven days.
“Honestly, I feel like they’re going to bring their A-game. They just lost. They’ve got something to prove, but we’ve got something to prove, too,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to be ready to play. We’re going to be walking into their stadium, so they’re going to be juiced up.
“Their crowd is going to be lit. The cowbells are going to be going. We’ve just got to be ready to play.”
Smith and the Gamecocks have spent this week getting ready for two quarterbacks.
Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, the starter against South Alabama, didn’t complete any of his 3 passing attempts. Junior Damian Williams received a lion’s share of the snaps and led the Bulldogs in rushing: 12 carries for 93 yards. He also connected on 20 of 28 throws for 143 yards with a touchdown.
Fitzgerald and Williams have the unenviable task of replacing Dak Prescott, the best quarterback in school history.
“Obviously, you lose a quarterback like Dak Prescott, it does change some things. They’re not going to give that quarterback as much as they gave Dak,” Muschamp said. “They put a lot on Dak last year having played them … I don’t think, philosophically, there’s been any change as far as what they believe in, and that’s being very physical up front and having the quarterback being able to have run game situations for them.”
Senior RB Brandon Holloway carried 11 times for 48 yards and a score, to go along with his 5 catches for 40 yards.
“They’re a pretty good run team,” said T.J. Holloman, the Gamecocks starting strong-side linebacker against Vanderbilt. “They have pretty good quarterbacks that are mobile. They love to run zone-reads, so we just have to be very sound fundamentally.”
Most of Mississippi State’s work through the air comes via the horizontal passing game. Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger wrote about the Bulldogs passing offense, which ranks 117th in the country in yards per attempt.
Senior WR Fred Ross caught a team-high 6 passes for 34 yards last week.
“We just have to be very good in space, very good tacklers in space and very good getting off blocks,” Holloman said. “Their receivers are very physical, as coach Muschamp has preached all week. Our DBs and linebackers have to get off them in space.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Mississippi State yielded 285 passing yards to South Alabama. Jaguars RB Tyreis Thomas averaged 8.3 yards per carry and scored on a 4-yard run, which capped a 99-yard drive in the fourth quarter.
South Carolina OL Cory Helms has family near Starkville. Plus, he took an official visit to Mississippi State during his transfer from Wake Forest, so he’s well aware of the challenge the challenge facing the Gamecocks offensive line.
“I know about the cowbells and I know their fans will be pretty rowdy, especially after last week,” Helms said. “They’ll try to bounce back their season, so we can definitely expect a pretty rowdy crowd.”
The Bulldogs defense features Hendricks Award candidate A.J. Jefferson, who had four tackles for loss, including two sacks against South Alabama. There’s no definitive word yet on whether or not he’ll be joined by freshman DE Jeffery Simmons on Saturday.
Simmons, the much talked-about former 5-star recruit, is eligible to make his collegiate debut on Saturday.
Coach Dan Mullen was coy when asked about the freshman’s availability against South Carolina. Judging by the way Mullen carried himself at SEC Media Days, it’s probably safe to assume that Simmons will play against South Carolina.
“We’ll see what happens Saturday,” Mullen said during his appearance on the SEC coaches teleconference. “We’ll see how the week of practice goes and make that decision.”