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Almost nothing has gone as UK head coach Joker Phillips and his football team would have planned through four games of the season. While most of the surprises for the Wildcats have been of the negative variety, at least one has been a positive: the play of the young offensive line.
The unit, which began the season with two first-time starters and almost no experience among its backups, ranks third in the Southeastern Conference and 33rd nationally with four sacks allowed. The Wildcat offensive line ranks 26th nationally with one sack allowed per game.
The offensive line even impressed against its toughest competition to-date by surrendering no sacks and paving the way for a 159 rushing yards against Florida last week.
While UK players and coaches are pleased with the offensive line play so far, they realize the challenge they face in No. 6 South Carolina will be their most difficult yet.
“Each week we’re going against a great front. That’s what this league is,” said UK offensive line coach Mike Summers. “These guys, I think are a notch above, and certainly we’re going to have to play our best game for us to have a chance to move the ball.”
The South Carolina defense ranks second in the SEC and fifth in the country with 15 sacks on the season. The Gamecocks’ 3.75 sacks per game are seventh most in the country.
The South Carolina defensive line is anchored by sophomore end Jadeveon Clowney, who ranks third in the SEC and 13th in the country with 4.5 sacks on the season. He ranks third in the conference and 13th in the country with seven tackles for a loss.
“I think one of the things the NCAA should do is issue every team two of those type of guys to make everything even,” Phillips joked.
“He’s even better this year. He’s a lot faster, a lot quicker off the ball, uses his hands better. He would be the No. 1 pick this year if I were a (general manager) and if he was coming out.”
Clowney is not the only standout on the South Carolina defensive line.
The Gamecocks have three linemen among the top 10 players in the SEC in both tackles for a loss and sacks. Defensive lineman Chaz Sutton ranks fifth in the conference and 35th in the country with three sacks of his own.
“If we worry 100 percent about Clowney, there’s a guy over here on the other side, Devin Taylor, who’s 6-foot-6 and he’s kind of getting lost in all the excitement about Clowney,” Phillips said. “They’ve got a couple other guys inside.”
The South Carolina pass rush has been even better in conference play with four sacks per game in two games against Vanderbilt and Missouri.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the pressure the Gamecocks have been able to place on opposing quarterbacks is that they have done it for the most part without blitzing extra defenders.
“They have two first-round guys on the edge and one in the middle. They can get really good push from them,” Phillips said. “Why blitz?”
UK’s ability to protect the quarterback may be even more important Saturday with sophomore Maxwell Smith likely to return from his one-week absence with a bruised shoulder.
Smith missed the Wildcats’ loss to Florida after trainers informed Phillips one hit to the shoulder could worsen the injury and keep Smith out for an extended period of time.
The week off appears to have given Smith the rest he needed, and barring a surprise he will start against the Gamecocks, Phillips said.
“Unless something happens to him between (now and then), it’s 100 percent,” he said. “He’s going to be the starter.”
The Wildcats won’t do anything differently to protect Smith this weekend. Instead the team will rely on the same things that have helped the offensive line play so well to-date and Smith’s ability to get the ball out of his hand quickly.
“You try to make the defensive line have to run sideline to sideline a little bit,” said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. “We can’t just drop back and leave him in the same spot all the time. If we do that, he’ll probably get killed.”
“It comes back down to the basics as an offensive line,” said senior center Matt Smith. “We have to work together in order to move those guys and protect the quarterback.”
UK is the only SEC East team to defeat South Carolina in the last three seasons. That win came in the Gamecocks’ last trip to Lexington in 2010.
But the most recent meeting with South Carolina — a 54-3 loss in 2011 — still has several Wildcat players with a sour taste in their mouths.
“It’s one of the biggest losses that I’ve ever been a part of in all my football career,” Matt Smith said. “It takes a little bit out of you when a team comes at you like that and just doesn’t let up.”
Each week offers the Wildcats another chance to turnaround what has thus far been a bleak season. A win versus South Carolina could go a long way to fixing some of their problems.
No one around the program has miced words about the difficulty of the task they face Saturday, especially the offensive linemen, but they are eager to make a statement.
“We’re excited about the challenge of having to play (against) really good players,” Summers said. “We went down and competed well in the front against Florida. I think we’ll do the same thing this week.”