College Sports

USC's pass defense will have hands full

COLUMBIA -- Chris Hampton hesitated slightly.

Yes, he knew about South Carolina's pass defense recently being christened the best in the nation. Yes, he was proud as a member of the secondary, the driving force behind the No. 1 ranking.

No, he didn't think the ranking will mean anything in three days, when No. 8 Kentucky comes to town for a nationally televised matchup.

"It will definitely be the best passing team we have played against so far this year," said Hampton, USC's second-string strong safety who's logged 16 tackles this season. "It does make you feel good about yourself but it makes you want to compete harder and try to stay that way."

The Gamecocks (4-1, 2-1 SEC) lead the country in pass defense, allowing a scant 106.4 yards per game. The number's a little misleading, considering USC hasn't played a true passing team in any of its five previous games and even if it had, opponents are finding it easier to run, since the Gamecocks give up 201.2 ground yards per game.

But USC is still tops in the country in one stat category, and with a promotion to a No. 11 national ranking, their highest since 2001, the Gamecocks could be feeling a lot worse.

"It's a game that's meaningful," coach Steve Spurrier said, previewing the matchup. "That's what we want to have is meaningful ballgames, instead of just trying to win six and go to a bowl."

The game was picked by ESPN for a Thursday showing before the season ever started. It's doubtful the programmers thought they'd be getting a matchup of two top-11 teams, but that's what happened.

The Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) have been one of the most surprising teams in the country, riding one of the nation's most potent offenses to just over 46 points per game and an unblemished record. Kentucky was expected to be good, with quarterback Andre Woodson voted first-team preseason All-SEC, but this good was a shock.

The Wildcats earned national respect when they topped in-state rival Louisville and followed with a thrashing of Arkansas. Spurrier compared Woodson to Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer on Monday and said it was going to take a huge effort for USC to shut him down, much less keep its No. 1 ranking.

"We haven't been tested much," Spurrier said, pointing out Georgia's receivers dropped several passes and other opponents have kept the ball on the ground.

Which is where Hampton and his mates come in. The Wildcats are no slouch running the ball, either, but if the Gamecocks' secondary can shut down the passing game, perhaps the defensive front will take the cue and negate the rushing totals.

"He's a good quarterback," Hampton said. "He had a record for not throwing interceptions, something like that. We can't blow assignments, because he'll burn you if you do."

USC has never had a big problem with Kentucky, winning 11 of 18 matchups, including the last seven straight. Spurrier is in the same boat -- he's 14-0 against the Wildcats lifetime.

But all of that was before this year, when Kentucky returned most of its talent from a Music City Bowl-winning squad. Plus, there's always the sour memory of last year, when USC seemingly had the game wrapped up before awful pass defense had the Wildcats down seven points and a Hail Mary from tying the score.

USC won 24-17 last season but Spurrier saw so much red from the leaky late-game defense that he summoned secondary coach Ron Cooper out of the shower. He asked Cooper what defense was being called in front of a roomful of reporters, and although Spurrier said it wasn't a public dressing-down (what it appeared to be at first), the Gamecocks still remember the game as a low point, not a quality win.

"We heard a lot about it. A whole lot," Hampton said, smile disappearing. "We definitely have to improve on it this year. Can't have a mental lapse like last year."

n NOTES: Quarterback Chris Smelley was named SEC Freshman of the Week for his performance against Mississippi State. Smelley threw for 279 yards in his second collegiate start and is slated to make his third start against Kentucky. ... Official kickoff time is 7:46 p.m. ...

USC's game against North Carolina on Oct. 13 has been set for a 3:30 p.m. kcikoff and will be part of the ACC/ABC television package.

WANT TO GO?

NO. 8 KENTUCKY (5-0, 1-0 SEC) AT NO. 11 SOUTH CAROLINA (4-1, 2-1)

• When: 7:46 p.m. Thursday

• Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia

• TV: ESPN (cable channel 25 in Rock Hill)

• Tickets: Sold out

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