COLUMBIA — “I have not watched one thing of film yet,” Will Muschamp said a Sunday ago after the Belk Bowl announced it would be South Carolina and Virginia tangling in Charlotte at noon on Dec. 29. “I’ll have my laptop with me so we’ll start watching it tonight.”
He hasn’t spoken publicly since, but the film he received likely showed what everyone else can see — the Cavaliers feature an incredible athlete in quarterback Bryce Perkins, and the Gamecocks’ explosive passing game will be going against a stingy secondary.
USC’s offense has piled up yards and points lately (a turnover-marred rainy game against Akron dragging the numbers down) as quarterback Jake Bentley and play-caller Bryan McClendon have mastered the up-tempo approach. They’ll be going against the deepest part of Virginia’s team, a passing defense anchored by cornerback Bryce Hall (20 passes broken up) and safety Juan Thornhill, who has five interceptions this season.
The Cavs give up about 180 passing yards per game. While UVa’s competition hasn’t been great, USC will be without its most explosive playmaker.
Deebo Samuel is skipping the bowl game to begin training for the NFL, an understandable move considering his injury history but one that nonetheless left USC in the lurch. The best set of hands, biggest touchdown threat and an elite kickoff returner will be in the stands in Charlotte, not on the field.
Freshman Josh Vann is likely to slide into Samuel’s receiver spot while kick return could be filled by Rashad Fenton, Keisean Nixon or A.J. Turner — though Cavs kicker Brian Delaney has 44 touchbacks in 67 tries and the team has allowed just 23.3 yards per return, likely negating Samuel even if he played. Bentley will still have Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith to throw to, and the running backs should be completely healthy.
The Gamecocks’ defense will get Bryson Allen-Williams, Jaycee Horn and Jaylin Dickerson back, Muschamp said, and there’s a chance Aaron Sterling will return. They’ll each be charged with doing whatever they can to stop Perkins.
He’s thrown for 2,472 yards and rushed for 842, combining for 31 touchdowns. He can also hand off to running back Jordan Ellis, who has 920 yards and nine touchdowns.
Perkins tweaked his knee in Virginia’s final regular-season game, a loss to Virginia Tech, but should be recovered for the Belk Bowl. Coach Bronco Mendenhall may revisit his plan for Ellis, considering Virginia is 6-0 when Ellis carries at least 15 times and 1-5 when he doesn’t.
USC had problems stopping mobile quarterback Feleipe Franks in a gut-wrenching loss to Florida, and Virginia has had problems finishing games. The 7-5 Cavaliers fell to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in overtime, and lost to Indiana by four points.
Each team posted its wins over the lesser opponents on its schedule. The Gamecocks were 0-5 against the top 25. Virginia beat Miami, the only ranked team the Cavaliers played.