Big Game Preview: UVA faces South Carolina in Belk Bowl

Belk BowlSo you know already that South Carolina is down its top wide receiver, Deebo Samuel, who is sitting out the Dec. 29 Belk Bowl with UVA to focus on getting ready for the NFL Draft.

The Gamecocks (7-5, 4-4 SEC) have plenty else to work with on the offensive side of the ball.

Samuel leads USC with 62 catches, 11 for touchdowns, and 822 yards through the air in 2019. But coach Will Muschamp and first-year offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon still have Bryan Edwards (52 catches, 809 yards, 7 TDs) and Shi Smith (39 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs).

Augusta Free Press coverage of the 2018 Belk Bowl is sponsored by 
Bear Creek and Studio 3.6.

And then there’s the trigger to the high-powered attack, quarterback Jake Bentley (63.9 percent completion rate, 2,953 yards, 27 TDs/12 INTs).

South Carolina averages 32.6 points and 440.6 yards per game on offense, and notably put up 600 yards of total offense in its 56-35 loss to Clemson last month.

A bigger question for the Gamecocks will be its health up front. Left guard Zack Bailey broke his left fibula in the Dec. 1 regular-season finale against Akron and will miss the bowl game.

Bailey graded out as USC’s top offensive lineman in 2018, so his absence will be noticed.

On defense, the Gamecocks will be without defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw and starting corner Keisean Nixon, with a lot of question marks on how may be available from among the walking wounded on that side of the ball.

Muschamp was able to piece things together enough on defense to get through the season, but USC still gave up a rather healthy 27.2 points and 425.3 yards per game in 2018, including an average of 45 points and 619.3 yards per game in their last three meaningful games, a 48-44 win over Ole Miss on Nov. 3, a 35-31 loss at Florida on Nov. 10 and the 56-35 loss at Clemson on Nov. 25.

Keys to the Game

Pass rush: Virginia recorded just 23 sacks in the regular season. South Carolina surrendered just 20, while attempting 33 passes a game. Which is more impressive when you factor in that the USC passing game is more downfield-directed than the West Coast schemes you see in vogue these days. The ‘Hoos will need to put pressure on Bentley to help the secondary out on those long pass routes.

Gash on the ground: The UVA run game will need to have a big day against a South Carolina defense that gives up 194.5 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry on the ground. The pass defense, battling injuries all season long, still only allowed nine passing touchdowns in 2018. Opponents scored 28 TDs on the ground, by contrast.

Heads in the game: Virginia famously checked out early in last season’s Military Bowl loss at Navy, and coach Bronco Mendenhall conceded later that he had noticed issues in game prep leading up to the bowl game. That will need to be a lesson learned to avoid laying another egg against a tough SEC opponent.

Preview by Chris Graham

uva basketball team of destiny
Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.

The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.
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