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Now would be a stupendous time for Missouri’s defensive front to show up

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South Carolina can’t run the ball well and takes a lot of sacks. It would be wonderful for Missouri to turn back into a defense that could take advantage of such things.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

About 13 months ago, Missouri started a true freshman quarterback against South Carolina and rode an efficient, conservative, and effective game plan to victory. This Saturday, the Gamecocks will attempt to do the same against the Tigers.

Backfield

QB

  • Perry Orth (6’1, 200, Sr.) — 57-for-90 (63%), 661 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 8 sacks (6.1 yards per pass attempt); 8 carries, 2 yards (0.3) OR
  • Brandon McIlwain (6’0, 205, Fr.) — 56-for-107 (52%), 567 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 8 sacks (4.4); 50 carries, 172 yards (3.4), 2 TD OR
  • Jake Bentley (6’3, 225, Fr.) — 32-for-46 (70%), 368 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 8 sacks (6.0); 6 carries, 26 yards (4.3)

Fair warning: South Carolina’s depth charts are almost as useless as Missouri’s. Three players are listed as co-starters, but it would be shocking to see anybody but Jake Bentley lining up at the beginning of the game on Saturday.

Bentley threw his first career pass just 11 days ago, and eventually opponents will catch up to him. (It always happens.) But in his first two starts, he has provided a level of safety and efficiency that didn’t previously exist. He has completed 70 percent of his passes with no picks; his passes aren’t really going anywhere, and he’s taking a ton of sacks, but his ability to keep the ball moving forward has helped the Gamecocks to avoid falling into passing downs.

For the year, South Carolina’s standard downs success rate is just 45.2 percent, 91st in the country. But while it was just 46 percent against UMass, it was 55 percent against Tennessee.

Mizzou’s defensive front is retreating to last year’s more aggressive, disruptive philosophy. I have expressed concerns for this move overall — if Odom’s vision is the read-and-react approach we’ve seen to date, I’m not sure making a sudden, midseason change for short-term gain is the best long-term move — but you could see how some extra aggression could pay off in this one.

Missouri’s goal will have to be to disrupt Bentley’s rhythm. The Gamecocks basically forfeited passing downs against Tennessee (13 percent success rate), but it worked because there weren’t many passing downs. The goal has to be to make Bentley uncomfortable as frequently as possible. Charles Harris, this would be a fantastic time for you to make your second dominant appearance of the year.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina
Jake Bentley
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

RB

  • A.J. Turner (5’10, 195, RSFr.) — 75 carries, 328 yards (4.4), 2 TD; 17 targets, 15 catches, 104 yards (6.1)
  • David Williams (6’1, 220, Jr.) — 41 carries, 186 yards (4.5), 2 TD; 3 targets, 3 catches, 32 yards (10.7)
  • Rod Talley (5’10, 205, Jr.) — 1 carry, 2 yards
  • UNLISTED: Rico Dowdle (5’11, 211, Fr.) — 59 carries, 291 yards (4.9), 3 TD; 5 targets, 5 catches, 15 yards (3.0)

Rico Dowdle rushed 27 times for 127 yards last week. He isn’t listed among SC’s top three backs — again, this depth chart is worthless — but one assumes the ‘Cocks wouldn’t mind him carrying a similar load on Saturday.

Then again, with the way Missouri has been defending the run, it doesn’t really matter who’s carrying the ball. South Carolina is nowhere near as good or explosive on the ground as Kentucky or Middle Tennessee or LSU — the Gamecocks rank a miserable 112th in Rushing S&P+ — but the burden of proof here is on the Missouri run defense at this point. That’s how bad the Tigers have been in the last month.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina
Rico Dowdle & Deebo Samuel
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Receiving corps

WR

  • Bryan Edwards (6’3, 210, Fr.) — 50 targets, 27 catches, 341 yards (6.8), 2 TD
  • Terry Googer (6’4, 220, So.) — 16 targets, 7 catches, 66 yards (4.1)
  • Randrecous Davis (5’10, 181, Fr.) — 6 targets, 3 catches, 45 yards (7.5)

WR

  • Deebo Samuel (6’0, 205, So.) — 34 targets, 24 catches, 345 yards (10.2)
  • Chavis Dawkins (6’2, 200, Fr.) — 12 targets, 7 catches, 35 yards (2.9)

WR

  • Jamari Smith (5’10, 210, Jr.) — 3 targets, 0 catches, 0 yards
  • Korey Banks (5’11, 180, Fr.)

TE

  • Hayden Hurst (6’5, 250, So.) — 51 targets, 32 catches, 406 yards (8.0)
  • K.C. Crosby (6’1, 227, So.) — 25 targets, 17 catches, 170 yards (6.8), 3 TD
  • UNLISTED: Jacob August (6’6, 248, So.) — 12 targets, 5 catches, 52 yards (4.3)

Bentley has leaned mostly on three players so far: Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, and Random Tight End. In the last two weeks, Samuel and Edwards combined to provide solid possession options, catching 23 of 32 passes for 272 yards, while TEs Hayden Hurst and K.C. Crosby caught 4 of 6 for 69.

Bentley has focused less on tight ends than Perry Orth or Brandon McIlwain did, but Crosby still caught a 16-yard touchdown pass (on third-and-7) against UMass and a 35-yard touchdown pass against Tennessee, and Hurst’s lone catch against Tennessee came on a key third-and-7 on South Carolina’s time-killing last drive. He keeps that option in his back pocket, and you figure that option might work a few times against Missouri’s banged-up, super young linebacking corps.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at South Carolina
Bryan Edwards
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive line

LT

  • Mason Zandi (6’9, 315, Sr.) — 8 starts in 2016, 19 career starts
  • Malik Young (6’3, 300, So.) — 4 starts in 2016, 4 career starts

LG

  • Zack Bailey (6’6, 315, So.) — 8 starts in 2016, 13 career starts

C

  • Alan Knott (6’4, 290, Jr.) — 7 starts in 2016, 23 career starts

RG

  • Donell Stanley (6’4, 325, So.) — 1 start in 2016, 1 career start
  • Cory Helms (6’4, 310, Jr.) — 8 starts in 2016, 8 career starts

RT

  • D.J. Park (6’4, 330, Jr.) — 3 starts in 2016, 3 career starts
  • Blake Camper (6’8, 300, So.) — 1 start in 2016, 2 career starts

SC’s starting line for the last month has been Zandi-Bailey-Knott-Helms-Young, not what is listed above. (Stanley is listed as questionable with an ankle injury, too.) Regardless, it hasn’t been effective.

  • Standard downs: 103rd in line yards per carry, 95th in sack rate
  • Passing downs: 115th in line yards per carry, 113th in sack rate

Missouri has an opportunity to right the ship here. This is easily the least effective run game and offensive line that the Tigers have faced in the last month, and if the Tigers have any leftover #DLineZou juice in them, now would be a good time to let it out.

Mizzou’s Charles Harris had a revealing quote on Tuesday:

"It’s our natural defense. I’m not going to say natural defense, but it’s something we’ve been doing forever. It wasn’t too foreign" switching back.

He caught himself, but knowing what we’ve heard over the last couple of months regarding the defensive line struggling to grasp the nuances of a new system and buy-in being a bit of a concern ... well ... he probably meant “natural defense.” And that’s fine.

If things click in the second week of Mizzou’s new-old defense, then we should see results here. South Carolina isn’t a good running team, and Jake Bentley will take sacks. If a good Missouri defensive line shows up, then the Tigers can absolutely win this game and potentially win by a decent amount.

But there are ifs, and there are ifs. At this point, Missouri has to earn back the benefit of the doubt up front.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at South Carolina
Mason Zandi
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports