After dropping their first game of the season last week against LSU, the No. 9 Gators (6-1, 3-1 SEC) look to get back on track this weekend and gather some momentum heading into the monster clash with Georgia in two weeks. To do so, they’ll have to beat South Carolina (3-3, 2-2) on the road. The Gamecocks couldn’t feel much better about themselves than they do right now, as they pulled off the upset of the year against then-No. 3 Georgia last weekend.
Here are three positions of strength, three positions of weakness and three players to watch for from the Gamecocks.
Three Positions of Strength
Coach Will Muschamp loves to lean on a powerful rushing game to put together lengthy drives, wear down the opposing defense and keep his defense fresh. Add in the youth and inexperience at quarterback, and it’s no secret how the Gamecocks are going to try to beat the Gators. Rico Dowdle leads the group with 449 yards and four scores on 77 carries (5.8 yards-per-carry). Clemson graduate transfer Tavien Feaster has added 317 yards and three touchdowns on 57 carries (5.6 yards-per-carry). Third-string running back Mon Denson is averaging 8.4 yards-per-carry on his 19 rushes. This group is deep and talented, and UF’s defense surrendered 9.1 yards-per-carry against LSU. Containing the running game should be the biggest key to victory for the Gators this week.
On Monday, Florida coach Dan Mullen said this defensive line is as good as or better than LSU’s front. That seems to be a little bit of an exaggeration on paper, but the unit is still talented and productive. Plus, it’s not like it takes much to challenge UF’s offensive line. The Gamecocks are tied for fifth in the conference with 15 sacks and are fourth with 41 tackles-for-loss. End D.J. Wonnum is tied for third in the league in tackles-for-loss with 6.5 and is tied for seventh with 3.5 sacks. End Aaron Sterling has recorded five tackles-for-loss and three sacks. Javon Kinlaw is a monster in the middle, as he’s tied for the conference lead with five sacks. This should be the third best defensive line the Gators have faced this year.
The Gamecocks feature a solid but unspectacular group of linebackers. Ernest Jones is second in the league (behind UF’s David Reese) in tackles with 50. He’s recorded 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception and five pass breakups. Senior T.J. Brunson, who’s from Columbia, is tied for sixth in the SEC with 44 stops. Their linebackers are similar to UF’s linebackers in that they are an unflashy group that just seems to get the job done more often than not.
Three Positions of Weakness
Who will play quarterback on Saturday is a giant mystery and one of the biggest storylines surrounding this game. True freshman Ryan Hilinski, who replaced Jake Bentley after he suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the season, injured his knee in the third quarter against Georgia. He was barely able to move on the sideline for the rest of the game, but Muschamp said it’s only a sprain and they expect him to play on Saturday. In his absence, redshirt freshman Dakereon Joyner completed six of 12 passes for 39 yards and ran six times for 28 yards. Is Hilinski truly going to play this weekend, or was that a bit of gamesmanship by Muschamp to force the Gators to prepare for both guys? They have completely different skill sets, as Hilinski is a big pocket-passer and Joyner is a smaller dual-threat quarterback who isn’t as polished of a passer. Even if Hilinski plays, he’ll almost certainly show some effects from the injury.
South Carolina has good top-end talent but not a lot of depth at this position. Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith have combined for 56 catches for 660 yards and five touchdowns. The rest of the corps has combined for 23 receptions for 201 yards and no scores. Florida struggled against LSU and Kentucky when they spread the field and found the matchups they liked. South Carolina doesn’t seem to have the depth to exploit Florida’s shaky secondary.
This position has been boom or bust for the Gamecocks. They rank just 12th in the conference in passing defense at 259 yards-per-game, but they’re second with eight interceptions. Their cornerbacks have great length, but their safeties are a bit undersized. Kyle Trask should be able to pick them apart and possibly turn in another 300-yard game. He’s only thrown one interception in his last three starts, and that’s what this secondary feasts on.
Three Players to Watch
Cornerback Israel Mukuamu
Mukuamu intercepted Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm three times and now has a league-leading four for the season. What will he do for an encore? At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he’s probably one of the few corners in the league that can match the physicality of Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes. He might even get a crack at covering Kyle Pitts. He’s also third on the team in tackles, a rarity for a cornerback. When things are going well for him, he has the potential to have a huge impact on the game, as Fromm found out on Saturday.
Defensive Tackle Javon Kinlaw
The 6-foot-6, 310-pound senior is starting to show up in the first round of some mock drafts. In addition to his league-leading sack total, he’s second on the Gamecocks with five tackles-for-loss. He’s also recovered a pair of fumbles and blocked a kick. If South Carolina is smart, they’ll line him up against struggling right guard Christopher Bleich or redshirt freshman Richard Gouraige, who’s played quite a bit at left guard in the past few games. The results likely won’t be pretty for the Gators.
Wide Receiver Bryan Edwards
Mullen said “he is one of the best receivers in the league,” and the statistics back up that claim. Despite playing with three different quarterbacks, he ranks seventh in the SEC in both catches (33) and yards (426). He’s also the Gamecocks’ primary punt returner, and he’s gained 66 yards on his three returns. Last week, LSU’s Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase both turned in 100-yard receiving games against UF. The Gators can’t let that happen again this week with Edwards.