SHREVEPORT, LA. - The focus of the South Carolina football team could be summed up in one statement Thursday, as the Gamecocks made final preparations for their Independence Bowl match up today against Missouri.
“Pretty much,” said South Carolina defensive end Orus Lambert, “all we got to do is stop Brad Smith.”
This was not said in a cocky manner. Nor a condescending one. It is hard to believe, too, that Lambert meant any disrespect. Instead, the South Carolina defensive end stated this matter-of-factly, as if he were informing the media contingent gathered on the second floor of the Shreveport, La., Expo Hall that he was hungry. Or giving them directions.
But Lambert’s comment spoke volumes of the Gamecocks’ singular focus heading into today’s match-up against Missouri: Stop Brad Smith and stop Missouri. Stop Brad Smith and win. Period.
It’s not the first time that this ideology has been fostered by a team preparing for Missouri. No Big 12 Conference coach has neglected to factor in the Tigers’ all-Big 12 first team quarterback when preparing to face Missouri (6-5) this season.
Unfortunately for various defenses, though, this idea is far easier said than done.
While Smith has certainly been streaky at times, making costly mistakes at critical times, he has had a nauseating effect on many a defensive coordinator. Against Nebraska, who entered its match up with Missouri as the No. 1 ranked team in the nation at stopping the run, Smith rolled to 246 rushing yards and three touchdowns. And three other times this season Smith has rushed for over 100 yards, including a 184 yard performance against Oklahoma State.
Upon hearing of South Carolina’s apparent lack of respect for other members of the Missouri offense, Smith welcomed the news with a slight smile.
“I enjoy that,” Smith said. “I enjoy that challenge. If they’re looking at me, then they’re not looking at everybody else on the field, so other guys can make plays. And I think that plays into our hands.”
In general this season, as Smith has gone, Missouri has gone. At least when speaking of the Youngstown, Ohio, native’s running ability. In games in which Smith has rushed for 75 yards or more, the Tigers are 5-1. When he has failed to reach the 75 yard mark, Missouri is 1-4. South Carolina has made no secret of its desire to focus most of its energy on containing Smith, and it’s safe to assume that Spurrier and Co. have analyzed film from Missouri’s losses to Kansas and Colorado, games in which Smith was successfully stifled (38 yeards vs. KU and 16 vs. CU).
“Our players know what they have to do,” Spurrier said. “We have to sort of contain. You don’t run straight at a quarterback like him, and hopefully our guys will get off blocks and corral him. I think our defensive coaches and (co-defensive coordinator Tyrone) Nix have really emphasized that for a couple of weeks now.”
In order to do this, South Carolina is prepared to take any necessary measure. It is possible, for instance, that all-American safety Ko Simpson will act as a rover for much of the game, assigned with keeping the NCAA’s all-time leading rushing quarterback in check. Another strategy that has worked with relative success against Missouri this season has been to drop the defensive ends back, in an effort to keep Smith in the pocket, a place he has struggled at times.
While South Carolina has not been overly spectacular either offensively or defensively this season, the Gamecocks have been steady at both. The team’s offense is led by a collection of young players. Running back Mike Davis, a freshman from Columbia, S.C., has amassed 541 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Blake Mitchell has been a pillar for the Gamecocks, throwing for 2,104 yards and 15 touchdowns with nine interceptions and has found a favorite target in Sydney Rice, a freshman all-American who caught 58 passes for 952 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“The accuracy of the quarterback (is impressive),” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. “He doesn’t take sacks. He gets set and he throws and is hard to get to. The
versatility of their offense is such that it is just a well-run pro offense. Obviously it can present problems to us and hopefully we can do our best to contain it.”
One factor that could make this difficult, however, is Missouri’s recent string of injuries. Receiver Sean Coffey has been out of the lineup since re-separating his shoulder, and Pinkel announced Thursday that sophomore tailback Marcus Woods will miss the Independence Bowl with a groin injury suffered at the conclusion of the regular season.
With Coffey and Woods in the lineup, Missouri would have faced an uphill battle against a South Carolina team that has proven itself in one of the nation’s top conferences, with wins over Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida this season. Without them, the outlook becomes even more murky for Tigers fans. Add to that the absence of senior safety and team captain Jason Simpson, suspended two weeks ago after police found less than 35 grams of marijuana in his off campus apartment, and Missouri will be without three of its top overall players. Not exactly ideal conditions for a team hoping to earn its first bowl victory since defeating West Virginia 34-31 in the 1998 Insight.com Bowl.
That leaves Smith bearing even more of the offensive burden than he already does. In his career at Missouri, Smith has set 59 different Missouri, Big 12, and NCAA records. He has led Missouri to a combined 24-22. But he has failed to do the one thing that will bring him unquestioned acceptance in the city of Columbia for years to come. He has yet to win a bowl trophy.
Today, that could change. And Smith, perhaps more than other player on the Independence Field turf, could hold the key to victory.