COLUMBIA — South Carolina center T.J. Johnson says the Gamecocks are ready to wipe away the problems of the past two weeks.
Johnson has a good handle on the team’s attitude.
He will start his 48th game, more than anyone in school history, when No. 17 South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) takes on Tennessee (3-4, 0-4) today. Johnson has watched the team go from a middle-of-the-pack SEC team to challenger for the league title since he arrived before the 2008 season.
Still, he’s as upset as anyone about the Gamecocks’ two-game slide that dropped them from national championship contender to trying to restore momentum after a 6-0 start.
“We’ve had a lot of missed assignments and I take that as kind of my fault,” he said. “I’ve got to do more in helping people get ready and that’s what we’re working toward this week.”
Johnson was not the most highly sought offensive lineman coming out of Aynor who picked the Gamecocks over schools like Vanderbilt, Duke and North Carolina State. Once the 6-foot-6, 319 pound Johnson got in the lineup, though, it was hard to get him out. When he makes his first snap Saturday, he’ll have surpassed the school mark for starts held by defensive end Cliff Matthews.
The Gamecocks are looking rebound after dropping top-10 matchups at Louisiana State and at Florida the past two weeks.
South Carolina lost its shot at a national crown when it lost at Death Valley. The team gave up its chances at an SEC East title when it fell to division rival Florida.
The Gamecocks, though, have plenty to fight for, starting this week when they can win their third in a row over Tennessee, something that’s never happened before in a series first played in 1903.
“We still got a lot to fight for and that’s what we’re going to do,” Johnson said.
South Carolina is seeking to gets its offense back on track. Star tailback Marcus Lattimore gained 35 yards at LSU and came out of the game with a bruised hip that limited him against Florida. Lattimore got just three carries last week and Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said he held his junior runner out once the game got out of hand.
“We thought it’d be smart to rest him for another day, to rest him for the next battle,” Spurrier said. “That’s coming up Saturday, and he should be ready to go.”
Spurrier also said quarterback Connor Shaw will go the whole way unless he gets hurt. Shaw was pulled at halftime last week for Dylan Thompson with the Gamecocks trailing 21-6.
Spurrier, who won a Heisman Trophy as Florida’s quarterback and a national title as its coach, acknowledged he was upset at how poorly his offense played at his old stomping grounds. That’s past, Spurrier said, and he’s ready to focus on the positives, like Johnson’s longevity mark.
“We haven’t had much good to talk about lately,” Spurrier said. “So that’s neat he’s started more games here than anybody.”
The Vols have gone through an SEC gauntlet of their own this season. They’ve lost all their league games against ranked opponents who are a combined 27-1 this season and will hope to avoid a second-straight 0-5 SEC start under Derek Dooley.
The grind is wearing on all league teams, says Tennessee center James Stone.
“We’re all going through the same thing. I guess this game’s going to really show who’s able to play through it and who’s able to strain through,” he said.
Stone and the Vols offensive line will have their hands full with South Carolina’s sack squad led by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. This is truly a showdown of elite units: The Gamecocks lead the SEC with 29 sacks while Tennessee has allowed three sacks all season.
Dooley worries the losses have sapped his team’s spirit two months into the season. He said the defense has struggled and the offense hasn’t been strong enough to overcome that.
“That is the way it is,” he said.