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Deebo Samuel is dangerous, but Rico Dowdle might be the key to stopping South Carolina

Dowdle was the reason the Cocks beat Missouri a year ago. Can a remodeled Mizzou front slow him down this time?

NCAA Football: Missouri at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

In South Carolina’s 31-21 win over Missouri in 2016, Rico Dowdle, then a freshman, rushed 27 times for 149 yards and a touchdown. He also made a gorgeous 17-yard touchdown catch.

Despite Deebo Samuel’s big game (nine catches, 125 yards), Dowdle was arguably the Gamecocks’ most valuable player. He started South Carolina’s go-ahead drive in the third quarter with an 18-yard run and finished it with a 20-yarder. And when they wanted to put the game out of reach, they handed to him six times for 57 yards in an eight-play field goal drive.

With this in mind, it’s pretty easy to suggest that Dowdle is the most important player for Missouri to stop this coming Saturday. The Tigers’ defensive front appeared to have quite a bit of potential on Saturday with a breakout from tackle Rashad Brandon, but having a good run game is key to the type of ball-control attack Will Muschamp wants to establish, and SC will go out of its way to establish it.

That said, assuming the Gamecocks watched any film whatsoever from the Missouri-MSU game, it’s probably safe to say they might feel good about their chances of passing.

Jake Bentley (6’3, 220, So.) — 17-for-29, 215 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 3 sacks (6.1 yards per attempt); 2 carries, 21 yards
Michael Scarnecchia (6’4, 209, Jr.)

NCAA Football: South Carolina at North Carolina State
Jake Bentley
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina found itself in an interesting place last week against NC State. The Gamecocks were either tied or ahead the entire game, and the temptation in that situation is to run the ball as much as possible.

Against a dynamite defensive front, however, they found the ground game wasn’t a very good ball control option. So Dowdle rushed only 12 times, and Bentley attempted 32 passes (including sacks). The recipe worked, if just barely.

South Carolina lost four of its first six games with Muschamp in charge, but since Bentley took over behind center, the Cocks are 5-3. He threw more than 26 passes in just three of seven starts last year — as means of comparison, Drew Lock has done so in 13 of his last 15 games — and after three sterling games against UMass, Tennessee, and Missouri to start his career, he had three straight lackluster efforts.

He’s still a work in progress, in other words, but last year’s Missouri game proved he’s got a pretty decent ceiling. Despite an effective Mizzou pass rush (four sacks) and the presence of two senior cornerbacks (Aarion Penton and John Gibson), Bentley went 22-for-28 for 254 yards and two scores. He wasn’t quite that good last week against NC State, but, well, he wasn’t going up against this Mizzou secondary, either.

Rico Dowdle (5’11, 220, So.) — 12 carries, 33 yards (2.8 per carry), 1 TD; 2 targets, 2 catches, 51 yards, 1 TD
A.J. Turner (5’10, 184, So.) — 1 carry, 2 yards
Ty’Son Williams (6’0, 215, So.) — 1 catch, 5 yards

Dowdle is a powerful runner with good hands. He had no room to work with between the tackles against NC State, but he will test not only the skill of Missouri’s rebuilt defensive front but also its toughness. The Tigers failed both of those tests a year ago.

Deebo Samuel (6’0, 215, Jr.) — 10 targets, 5 catches, 83 yards (8.3 per target), 2 TD; 1 carry, 5 yards
Terry Googer (6’4, 217, Jr.)

Bryan Edwards (6’3, 215, So.) — 7 targets, 5 catches, 55 yards (7.9)
OrTre Smith (6’4, 219, Fr.)

Shi Smith (5’10, 179, Fr.) — 4 targets, 3 catches, 23 yards (5.8)

Hayden Hurst (6’5, 250, Jr.) — 3 targets, 1 catch, -2 yards (-0.7)
Kiel Pollard (6’0, 240, So.)

Jacob August (6’6, 258, Jr.)
K.C. Crosby (6’1, 242, Jr.)

NCAA Football: South Carolina at North Carolina State
Deebo Samuel
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

From a logic perspective, you can make a clear case that Dowdle is the key here. But it’s impossible to ignore Samuel, because a) he’s good, b) he torched Mizzou a few times last year, and c) uh, did you see Mizzou’s secondary last week?

Samuel was easily the best thing South Carolina had going last week, but he only caught five passes; part of the damage he did came on kick returns.

I guess the question I find most interesting here is ... does Mizzou’s tenuous pass defense tempt South Carolina to extend itself beyond its preferred offensive footprint? Bentley averaged only 11.4 yards per completion last year and 12.6 last Saturday. He is an efficiency guy, and that’s fine, but Mizzou got obliterated for 25 minutes by big plays last week. Efficiency wasn’t the problem. Does Muschamp allow offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to open things up a little bit to take full advantage of Missouri’s weaknesses? And if so, does that take the Gamecocks out of their ball control comfort zone? You know Mizzou probably won’t mind a shootout, but that’s not typically the Muschamp m.o.

Samuel’s not all the Cocks have, by the way. Hurst, Crosby, and August caught 76 passes last season, and both of the Smiths above — OrTre and Shi — are four-star freshmen. Edwards had a decent 47 receiving yards against Mizzou last year, as well.

It’s a tantalizing thing, getting sucked into a shootout. We’ll see how South Carolina balances its ball control needs with the temptation of testing the Mizzou secondary downfield.

Malik Young (6’3, 303, Jr.) — 10 career starts
Dennis Daley (6’6, 330, Jr.)

Donell Stanley (6’4, 317, Jr.) — 2 career starts
Sadarius Hutcherson (6’4, 316, RSFr.)

Alan Knott (6’4, 290, Sr.) — 30 career starts
Chandler Farrell (6’2, 292, RSFr.)

Cory Helms (6’4, 309, Sr.) — 14 career starts
Blake Camper (6’8, 310, Jr.) — 2 career starts

Zack Bailey (6’6, 311, Jr.) — 19 career starts
D.J. Park (6’4, 337, Sr.) — 3 career starts

NCAA Football: South Carolina at North Carolina State
Alan Knott and Bentley
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou aside, Dowdle only really did damage to Western Carolina last year. He averaged 7.8 yards per carry in those two games and 4.6 in his other seven. He averaged 2.3 against NC State. The SC offensive line is big and increasingly experienced, but it was abnormally effective against Mizzou.

If the Tigers’ personnel changes — the return of Terry Beckner Jr., the addition of JUCOs Walter Palmore and Brandon — stick, then Mizzou should hold its own up front. Combine that with what should still be a decent pass rush, and you’ve got something.

But you still have to tackle Dowdle. And you still have to keep Bentley from connecting with Samuel 14,000 times.

Alexander Woznick (5’11, 164, RSFr.) — 5-for-5 PAT
Parker White (6’4, 195, Fr.) — 6 kickoffs, 4 touchbacks, 19.5 KR average allowed

Joseph Charlton (6’5, 190, So.) — 6 punts, 46.7 average

Deebo Samuel (6’0, 215, Jr.) — 1 KR, 97 yards, 1 TD

Chris Lammons (5’10, 190, Sr.) — 3 PR, 8.7 average

Kickoffs were about the only weakness for SC’s special teams unit last year, and in his first game with that role, Parker White did well. Of course, the Cocks have to replace a solid kicker in Elliott Fry; the next field goal Alexander Woznick attempts will be his first at the collegiate level. Hold SC to field goals and take your chances.

Oh yeah, and TOUCHBACKS ONLY, TUCKER MCCANN. Do NOT let Samuel a chance at a big kick return.