Vols offense poses a test for USC

South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney sacks Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel during second-quarter action in Gainesville, Fla. on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012. (Photo by Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA)

COLUMBIA — The last time Tennessee played at South Carolina, the Volunteers started an offensive line that included sophomore Dallas Thomas at left tackle and two true freshmen on the right side — Zach Fulton at guard and Ja’Wuan James at tackle.

Tennessee lost 38-24, ran for just 92 yards (2.5 per carry) and allowed six sacks.

The offense that the Volunteers bring to Columbia for today’s noon game against 17th-ranked USC will look similar to, but also different than, the 2010 Volunteers.

Thomas is still starting, now at left guard. Fulton and James remain at right guard and right tackle. Two years after giving up 41 sacks, more than all but four teams in the country, the Volunteers have allowed three in 2012, tied for third-fewest nationally. The young linemen who sputtered at USC two years ago are inexperienced no more.

“They just bit the bullet with them,” USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing said of the Tennessee coaches’ approach with playing those linemen in 2010.

The Gamecocks’ defensive line versus Tennessee’s offensive line is but one fascinating matchup in a game that USC has to win, and is expected to, after back-to-back losses at LSU and Florida derailed hopes of a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship. Drop a third straight game — to a team not on par with LSU and Florida — and the vibe around USC will turn sour entering an off week.

Because Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray likes to release the ball quickly, USC’s defensive line probably won’t be able to accumulate sacks. USC has 29 sacks this season, third-most nationally, including 23 by the defensive line and 7½ by end Jadeveon Clowney, who recognizes the challenges of playing a solid line and a quick-release quarterback like Tennessee’s.

“Their tackles are pretty good,” he said. “They move their feet pretty good, better than some of the tackles we’ve played against. I know they get the ball out pretty quick, so we’re going to have to get our hands up. I’m looking forward to getting a sack or two, but we’re going to have to get our hands up and knock a couple balls down to help the DBs out as much as possible.”

That’s because the other intriguing matchup today involves USC’s defensive backs and Tennessee’s wide receiver duo of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. They have capably replaced Da’Rick Rogers, who ranked second in the SEC last season with 1,040 receiving yards but was kicked off the team before this season because of failed drug tests.

Hunter has 39 catches for 567 yards and four touchdowns. Patterson, a Rock Hill native who debuted this season after transferring from junior college, has 24 catches for 340 yards and three touchdowns. USC secondary coach Grady Brown called them “probably two of the best (receivers) in college football.”

Said USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward: “They stretch the field probably more than any other team we play. They’re going to play from sideline to sideline with their receiver splits, so they’re going to put us in some space out there.”

Last season, the Gamecocks had a dominant pass defense and a future No. 10 overall NFL draft pick at cornerback in Stephon Gilmore. USC ranked second nationally with 131.7 passing yards allowed per game and sixth with 19 interceptions. There is no star of Gilmore’s level in this year’s USC secondary, but the group still ranks No. 14 with 175.9 passing yards allowed and No. 24 with nine interceptions. And it is looking forward to playing against Hunter and Patterson.

“You want to show the nation that you can cover those guys up,” said free safety D.J. Swearinger.

Ward said this is “by far” his secondary’s biggest test yet this season. Tennessee’s passing offense is No. 28 nationally with 285.3 yards per game, better than any team USC has played to date. Unlike LSU and Florida, who lean on running, the Volunteers have run and thrown the exact same number of times this season.

Ward knows his defensive backs must lock down Hunter and Patterson, and prevent Bray from getting the ball out quickly, so USC’s defensive line can do what it does best. When Ward was informed that the Volunteers haven’t allowed a sack this season to a defensive linemen, he countered by saying how many of USC’s sacks have come from its front four.

“I like the matchup,” he said with a sly grin.