Gamecocks expecting tough challenge from Vandy

Ben Cook

August 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm.

Connor Shaw is a capable passer, but he's also a dynamic runner as Nebraska defenders found out in last year's Capital One Bowl. (Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE)

South Carolina is coming off the greatest season in school history and is gearing up to open the SEC season Thursday night at Vanderbilt.

South Carolina won 11 games last season and Vanderbilt won six. This would appear to be a mismatch based on last season, but don’t tell that to Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier.

“We have tough battles with almost everybody,” Spurrier said. “We don’t blow out hardly anybody yet. Hopefully some day we can blow out these lesser teams, but certainly Vanderbilt is not in that neighborhood of a lesser team anymore. We’ve always had pretty close games with them from what I can remember. They’ve beaten us a couple of times also out of the seven years (I’ve been at South Carolina). They’re a good team and play everybody tight. They have good players, are well-coached and in position. They generally don’t beat themselves.

“They’re really fired up in Nashville — their team, players and city. They have a lot of enthusiasm over Vanderbilt football now. Our guys realize that this is a big game for us; about the same as the Georgia or Tennessee game. Eastern Division conference rivals. Hopefully we’re ready to play well. I think we are. Only time will tell. The word out of Vanderbilt is they’re ready to play very well. We know that. We have absolutely no excuses if we don’t play well,” he said.

And enthusiasm at Vanderbilt for football is at a fever pitch thanks to second-year coach James Franklin.

“I expect there to be a good crowd because there is more buzz and excitement about Vanderbilt football than there has ever been before,” Franklin said. “(The players) feel that if the Green Bay Packers were to walk into that stadium that they’re going to play with them, and they’re going to beat them. That’s their mentality. And that’s good, because that’s not the situation we were in last year.”

But when you get past all the opening game excitement and all the hype, the game will come down to talent vs. talent, and there is little doubt that the Gamecocks have the talent to make a run for an SEC championship — and possibly a little more.

The biggest star in the Gamecock offense is 6-foot, 218-pound junior tailback Marcus Lattimore, a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Lattimore is perhaps the SEC’s best candidate for the trophy since two of the other top preseason candidates play for the same team at Arkansas. Lattimore is returning after an injury-shortened 2011 season in which he gained 818 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. He appears to be healthy and ready to pick up where he left off.

“Marcus is ready to carry 25 or 30 times,” Spurrier said. “I think Kenny (Miles) is such a good back (that) he should play a bit here and there. That’s where I think we need to go through the season also, but Marcus could carry 30 to 40 if we needed to.”

“I’m not going to stand up here and be real creative and come up with something else; we have to stop Marcus Lattimore,” Vandy’s Franklin remarked. “I think that’s obvious to everybody.”

“He’s a great player and he’s proven that he can compete at a very high level in this league, so we’re focused on stopping the entire offense,” Vanderbilt defensive tackle Rod Lohr said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to go against him.”

Lattimore is not the only Gamecock threat. Junior quarterback Connor Shaw threw for 1,448 yards and 14 touchdowns against only six interceptions as a first-year starter a year ago. He has also scored six touchdowns rushing over the past two years.

“Connor, he works at it and does what you like quarterbacks to do off the field and on the field,” Spurrier said. “The players have a lot of confidence in him. He’s a good quarterback that we hope will turn into a really great one, an outstanding player.”

Defensively the Gamecocks feature a crushing pair of defensive ends in sophomore Jadeveon Clowney and senior Devin Taylor.

“If they are as good as advertised, then they will have a big ballgame,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “I’ve talked to Jadeveon about it and I’ve talked to Devin about it. If we’ve got big-time players, then they need to play big time in big-time games. And this is a big-time game.”

It is also a big game for Vanderbilt as well. The Commodores will try to build on the momentum generated from a bowl appearance last season. Franklin is looking for leadership from the players who played in the Liberty Bowl.

“It’s not going to jump out with one specific guy like last year,” Franklin said. “Our leadership is going to come from a number of guys.”

The main man who needs to step up for the Commodores and assume the leadership role is senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers.

”I don’t think you can have a better environment, a better opening game with it being against an SEC opponent,” Rodgers said. “I think the real thing for us to focus on is that it is an SEC East game. If we want to do what we think we can do in this league, we need to win SEC East games and we need to start it out on Thursday night. I couldn’t ask for a better atmosphere with it being on ESPN.”

Spurrier knows the Vanderbilt team he will see Thursday night is not the same team he saw last year.

“Last year when they played us they weren’t very good if you can remember. I think they only had 100 yards of total offense,” Spurrier said. “They got a lot better after that. Jordan Matthews, a wide receiver, was named their most valuable offensive player during preseason practice. They give awards out or maybe the newspaper gave it out.

“Their quarterback, (Jordan) Rodgers, is a good passer like his brother (Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers). He threw for a lot of yards last year. Matthews made some big-time catches the latter part of last year, and they say he’s made big time catches in practices and scrimmages.”