South Carolina was seemingly done in the first half of their game against Missouri on Saturday. Mizzou had become the SEC's darling after a retched first year in the SEC turning into an undefeated start in 2013. That was before USC quarterback Connor Shaw was inserted into the game for the first time in the second half rehabbing an injury. The talented qb brought the Gamecocks back from a 17-point deficit and sent the game to overtime where USC would take the win. The Bulldogs now travel to Columbia facing a team, all of a sudden, in the SEC East title hunt.
"I'm excited about the game this week. South Carolina is not a team we've gotten to play very often," Head Coach Dan Mullen said Monday in his press conference. "We played right down to the wire with them a couple of years ago and give up a late touchdown pass. We had some opportunities to score and win the game and we didn't. You look at their program and Steve (Spurrier) has done a really good job building the program. He took it and built it up through the course of a bunch of years and finally put it to the point where they started to compete for Championships."
"They had a huge win last week and that just shows how much they know how to win. They have the best defensive player in all of college football that is a game-changer and the best running back in the SEC right now. It's a great challenge for our guys and obviously playing on the road adds to that. We've got to find a way to go win."
Finding a way to win on Saturday might give Mullen a break from some of the criticism that he so often receives from fans and outside media weekly. On top of that, Mullen has a chance to upset one of his childhood heroes, USC coach Steve Spurrier.
"I was a big fan of his growing up. I never got to meet him until I started coaching at Florida so I don't know how much he influenced my coaching deal but I've just always been a big fan of his," Mullen said of the old ball coach. "I like their style of offense and what they did spreading it out across the field and what they did out of the shotgun. I thought that was pretty cool."
One of the players benefiting from the ball coach is quarterback Shaw. He's taken his hits running the football and it's shown in his recent hobbled play, but he fights through it and was the absolute difference in the battle for Columbia last weekend.
"You watch and you just see the type of player that he is. It was completely evident watching that game last week and what he meant to that game. Sometimes they don't make him put up big numbers, they don't need to. As any great quarterback, he just manages the game. He does what he needs to do for his team to win the game. That, to me, is a great manager and winner at the position and he does that very well."
It also helps the qb to have players around him that make things a little easier for him to make the plays. Running back Mike Davis has quickly become the SEC's top running back and will be a tough option to defend by the MSU defense this week.
"He can do it all. He's got a lot of speed when he gets out in the open field, he can make you miss, but he's also very much a power back," Mullen said about Davis. "He gets a lot of yards after contact and that's where he's special as a runner. He's also extremely effective as a wide receiver and they use him a lot in the passing game and make it difficult to defend. They want the ball in his hands because of what he can do with it physically and athletically."
The biggest weapon that Spurrier has in his arsenal is on the opposite side of the ball, though. Phenom defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has harassed left tackles and quarterbacks now for three seasons. Regardless of the criticism he's taken from media about his effort this season, he's still impossible to stop, Mullen said. It's about containing.
"He's like 6'6, 280 and probably the most explosive, quickest guy on the field. He's really fast and long and I don't know how you contain him. He's going to make his plays. The one mistake you can make going into a game is thinking that you're going to take him out of the game. He's going to find a way to make his plays. What we have to do is making sure that we limit the amount of plays he can make or limit the effect these plays have on the course of the game. Chances are we're going to give up a sack on Saturday. The key is making sure that we don't give up another one in the play after. That's the key of keeping a steady offense."
As for a couple of MSU's defensive linemen, their stats have left much to be desired by fans. Mullen talked about Kaleb Eulls and Denico Autry's film being graded as positive. Stats don't matter in his eyes.
"I think they've played pretty well. I don't know what people expected. I think they've played pretty soundly on defense. They're gap sound, holding their gap, and they make plays when they're asked to make plays. Production, I do off of film grade and their film grade has been great. Sometimes you're not going to get stats."
The Bulldogs have had great starts to ball games this year but seem to hit a wall around the second half and struggle to consistently finish ball games. It's something different to deal with every ball game, Mullen mentioned.
"Every game to me is very different. If there's one thing you'd fix one thing. Last week we did some excellent things, than we did some really poor things. The good was really good and the bad was a lot of bad. You go back to the first game of the season and there's penalty after penalty and third and 15 after third and 15. I think in each game there's always something different that kind of ebb and flows throughout the season. I'd love to play a perfect game, I don't know if there is such a thing, but I'd like to play as close to a perfect game as possible. That would be a pretty good deal and that's what we always strive for."
A lot of the growing pains have been because of a young team recovering from injuries and lack of experience. A couple more true freshmen saw their redshirts burnt on Saturday with tight end Artimas Samuel and right guard Jamaal Clayborn each playing most of the snaps to rousing reviews from some. Mullen saw a lot of promise with several things to clean up.
"They hung in there. They did some good things, made a lot of mistakes but they did some good things," Mullen said on the two newest freshmen to see the field. "It was good to see that the stage wasn't too big for them. They came in and I didn't see a lot of nerves out of them. They got to see what a game is like because you can't simulate a game in any way. It's good they got that experience."
MSU saw their last group of weaker opponents against Kentucky and now starts a brutal stretch of games with South Carolina followed by Texas A&M and Alabama. Mullen sees no difference in any other stretch of games that the team goes through.
"Our first seven opponents are 38-18, so they were pretty good too," Mullen quipped. "It's no different than any of the other stretches that we face during the season. I think our guys are used to playing really good teams every week."
Mullen gave updates on all the injured Bulldogs, a list that seems to be growing every week the result of rigorous SEC pains. Season-ending injuries still include safety Jay Hughes, right guard Justin Malone, tight end Gus Walley, linebacker Ferlando Bohanna and right guard Tobias Smith who's role has been coaching since the spring.
He listed Tyler Russell, wide receiver Brandon Holloway and Jeremey Chappelle were all listed as limited at practice but Mullen expects them to play. Torrey Dale, Jordan Washington and Brandon Hill were all listed as "out" with no specifics given.
Safety Nickoe Whitley was ejected from Saturday's game against Kentucky and Mullen said that that will be a coaching decision when he plays and what his punishment will be. Same goes for defensive tackle Quay Evans who "violated team rules" last week and is suspended. Mullen will monitor it, he said.