No. 5 Missouri has a two-game lead in the SEC East and can essentially wrap up a trip to the SEC championship game in Atlanta by defeating 21st-ranked South Carolina at home Saturday. The Gamecocks aren’t expected to have starting quarterback Connor Shaw, who sprained his knee in last week’s 23-21 loss at Tennessee. The Gamecocks will start junior backup Dylan Thompson, who is a fairly gifted passer. But his wheels don’t spin nearly as fast as Shaw’s, and that’s going to be a problem against the Tigers.
The ability to evade pass rushers and keep plays alive is as valuable a trait as any against Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who leads the SEC and is second in the nation with nine sacks and 13 tackles for loss. This guy lives in the backfield, and it’s unlikely Thompson would be able to get away from him, should he get around one of South Carolina’s tackles.
The defensive line is the main reason why the Tigers are a legit SEC title contender and not just a team that’s taken advantage of SEC East opponents with decimated rosters. With Sam and Shane Ray coming off the edges, Mizzou doesn’t even have to blitz often to put heat on opposing QBs. When sending four or fewer pass-rushers, Missouri leads all schools from AQ conferences with 21 sacks and 61 total pressures (hurries, knockdowns and sacks). The Tigers’ 23 total sacks are best in the conference.
That pressure is directly related to another defensive statistic in which Missouri is best in SEC, interceptions. The Tigers have collected 14 of them this season, helping them to a +10 turnover margin (also best in SEC). South Carolina has only thrown three INTs this season, but two of those belong to Thompson, who has thrown 94 fewer passes than Shaw. So, there’s definitely the potential for some errant throws by Thompson if the Tigers are able to get pressure on him.
Obviously, the best way to negate pressure on the quarterback is running the football successfully and keeping the defense off-balance. So far this year, South Carolina has run the ball very well. The Gamecocks have the SEC’s top rusher, Mike Davis (879 YDs, 10 TDs), and third-best rush offense, averaging nearly 225 yards a game.
But Missouri’s defense has been stellar against the run. The Tigers are only giving up 116 yards per game, which is also third-best in the league. Last week, Missouri held Florida to just 59 rushing yards on 31 attempts.
South Carolina’s offense ground to a halt last week without Shaw. The Gamecocks had only 15 yards of offense in the final 15 minutes following his injury, which happened while Shaw was getting sacked. And sacks allowed have been somewhat of a problem for the Gamecocks this season.
South Carolina has given up 14 sacks so far, which ranks them toward the bottom among SEC teams. More importantly, those 14 sacks happened while a healthy, elusive Shaw was on the field. Without his athletic ability bailing the offensive line out time and again, that sack total could be even higher.
Unless the Gamecocks are able to absolutely dominate Missouri on the ground Saturday, the Tigers could add more than a few sacks to South Carolina’s total on Saturday. They have the best pass rush in the SEC and one of the best in the nation, and now these guys will be teeing-off on a stationary target in Thompson. It’s the perfect recipe for a Sam and Co. to take over this game and help Missouri become the fastest expansion team to reach the SEC to reach the conference title game. Arkansas represented the Western Division in 1995, their fourth season in the league.
Of course Missouri is one of those programs that has grown accustomed to monumental let downs, and losing this game would certainly qualify as one. Could this be the next heartbreaking defeat for the Tigers?