COLUMBIA — Steve Spurrier was so impressed with Arkansas last year, he all but shut down practice for two days after the Razorbacks’ victory to let the Gamecocks watch the game tape over and over again.
The South Carolina coach hopes the Gamecocks paid close attention.
South Carolina (7-1, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) travels to Arkansas to face the eighth-ranked Razorbacks (7-1, 3-1) Saturday in a critical matchup.
“You have to admire the way they play,” Spurrier said Tuesday. “It’ll be a big challenge for us.”
Perhaps the biggest one South Carolina has faced all year.
The Gamecocks are tied with No. 18 Georgia for the SEC Eastern Division lead and, while they hold the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs, they know they can’t afford any slipups down the stretch.
That means containing an Arkansas team that’s won four of the past five meetings in the series – and most of those in blowout fashion. That includes last year’s 41-20 pounding at Williams-Brice Stadium when Ryan Mallett threw for 303 yards and tailback Knile Davis rushed for three touchdowns.
“It’s going to be a real big test,” Gamecocks linebacker Antonio Allen said. “They just came in here and beat the crap out of us. We want to get that taste out of our mouths.”
Mallett left for the NFL and Davis was lost for the season after breaking his ankle at practice this summer. Still, it hasn’t slowed down the Razorbacks’ passing attack. The Hogs lead the SEC in passing yards and Mallett’s replacement, junior Tyler Wilson, is No. 1 in league passing average.
South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward says Wilson throwing just three interceptions in 279 attempts this season is testament to his skill as a passer and the reason Arkansas is operating at such a level.
“There are some throws that Ryan Mallett made that Tyler might not make, but they’re still the same offense,” Ward said.
Then again, Wilson and the Razorbacks might not have seen too many defenses like they’ll face with South Carolina. The Gamecocks are third behind SEC powers Alabama and Louisiana State in total defense and points allowed per game. They are second to Alabama against the pass.
Arkansas’ only loss this year came to the second-ranked Crimson Tide, when Wilson was held to 185 yards through the air, his lowest output this season.
“I think we’ve simplified a lot of our coverages to where we don’t have all that many and there are fewer mistakes,” Spurrier said. “I think that’s a big part of it, and just the guys playing hard, playing their assignments, playing with effort.”
That effort was crucial in extending the Gamecocks regular-season run of road victories to six at Mississippi State and Tennessee the past two games. They allowed only 166 yards rushing in the two victories.
The unit has given up just 18 points – and one touchdown – in the past 12 quarters since South Carolina’s lone loss this year, 16-13, to Auburn on Oct. 1.
Right now, the defense is playing at a level that bails out South Carolina’s struggling offense, which has managed only 28 points in beating Mississippi State and Tennessee.
Ward, a member of Alabama’s shutdown, 1992 national championship defense, is glad to see it.
“We’re developing the type of attitude that no matter what happens on the offensive side of the ball, we’re ready to go on the field and play,” he said. “If you do that, you become stronger as a team and that’s what I feel we’re doing, becoming stronger as a team.”
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino sees a bit of a mirror image of his own club in the Gamecocks, doing what they must to pull games out.
“They’re kind of like us, just battling and staying in there,” he said. “Both teams have had real close games, real hard-fought games and found ways to win games. It’s been very similar.”