USC's defense will be tested
COLUMBIA -- In January of 2008, Ellis Johnson spent less than a month as Bobby Petrino's first defensive coordinator at Arkansas. Before Johnson left to take the same job at South Carolina, he made a recruiting trip to Greenwood, Ark., 70 miles south of Fayetteville.
The previous month, Arkansas had received a commitment from Greenwood High's senior quarterback, Tyler Wilson.
Johnson still remembers being impressed by what little he saw of Wilson during his brief time as an Arkansas assistant.
This week, Johnson got to familiarize himself again with Wilson, now a junior in his first season starting for the Razorbacks.
Johnson saw a player who -- along with his multiple receiving threats -- poses the toughest challenge so far for South Carolina's passing defense, and the greatest threat to the Gamecocks' chances of returning to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
If the No. 10 Gamecocks (7-1, 5-1 SEC) beat No. 8 Arkansas (7-1, 3-1) tonight, they will still control their own destiny in the race for the SEC East's spot in the title game. If not, they'll need Georgia to lose one of its two remaining conference games (Auburn and Kentucky).
To avoid needing help, USC must defend the pass as well against a prolific offense as it did against shakier ones. Johnson was quick to point out that the Gamecocks' past three foes (Tennessee, Mississippi State and Kentucky) had murky quarterback situations or weren't throwing the ball well.
They combined to complete just 30 of 94 passes for 333 yards, one touchdown and eight interceptions against USC. Those games are a major reason why the Gamecocks rank No. 5 nationally in completion percentage allowed (50.4), No. 3 in passing yards allowed (135.9 per game) and No. 2 in interceptions (16).
And they suffocated opposing passing offenses in the last three games while playing just "two basic zone and man coverages," Johnson said. He doesn't expect to be able to defend Arkansas with such a simple approach.
"We're going to have to do more things this week and do more things in coverage and do it effectively," he said. "We haven't been challenged like this in the throwing game."
Wilson ranks No. 11 nationally with 290.9 yards per game. What makes Arkansas' offense so tough to defend is not only Wilson's arm, and not only that Petrino spreads the field with receivers, but also that he sends his tailback into a passing route 70 percent of the time, Johnson said, which "puts a lot more pressure on you."
Moreover, five Razorbacks have at least 18 catches and 184 yards -- three wide receivers (Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton); a tight end (Chris Gragg); and a tailback (Ronnie Wingo Jr.). So Wilson has plenty of options, even in tough spots. He has thrown 27 passes on third down and 10-plus yards to go this season. Nine of those 27 resulted in first downs -- the ninth-most first-down passes on third down and 10-plus in the country.
But just as Johnson recalls his encounter with Wilson three and a half years ago, the Gamecocks' defenders still vividly recall their last two games against Arkansas -- a 41-20 loss last season and a 33-16 loss in 2009. The Razorbacks hung 443 and 405 yards on USC in those games, during which Gamecocks free safety D.J. Swearinger said Arkansas "embarrassed us" -- and he clearly hasn't forgotten.
"It would be nice," he said, "to go down there and embarrass them."