COLUMBIA -- Here's a switch -- Steve Spurrier's going to be learning how the passing game should work instead of teaching it.
Eighth-ranked Kentucky comes to town tonight boasting a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Andre Woodson and an offense that's averaging close to 500 yards and 47 points per game. The irony of it wasn't lost on Spurrier, who routinely bludgeoned Kentucky with a high-profile passing game when he coached at Florida.
"Yeah, we used to have a lot better teams than Kentucky," said Spurrier, who has never lost to the Wildcats in 14 games. "Now we're very close."
South Carolina has attempted to find its downfield passing game this season, switching quarterbacks, receivers and linemen in an effort to find the perfect mix. The No. 11 Gamecocks seemed to find a solution last week against Mississippi State, and the offensive depth chart didn't change this week for the first time all season.
USC (4-1, 2-1 SEC) threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns against the Bulldogs as Chris Smelley took over at quarterback. The line protected well in spots and freshman Dion Lecorn, making his first start at receiver, caught two passes and drew praise for his pass-blocking.
Spurrier's hoping the passing game will continue to evolve after a good performance.
"We hit some balls downfield for the first time in a long time," Spurrier said. "It was encouraging for our receivers."
The other side should have no problems putting its best foot -- or in this case, arm -- forward. Woodson has been hooking up with Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyons and Jacob Tamme all season in a unit that's second in the SEC in total offense.
Granted, the Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) haven't played a truly tough defense yet, beating Eastern Kentucky, Kent State and Florida Atlantic besides Louisville (84th in the nation in total defense) and Arkansas (71).
USC is 26th in total defense, including the No. 1 pass defense in the country. Whether that will be enough to stop Kentucky's air show is the sticking point.
"I'm like, 'Man, no other team can be this strong,'" said wide receiver Kenny McKinley, referring to the Gamecocks' secondary. "They make it easier for us when we go into games because I've never seen any DBs as good as those guys. I just can't wait to see how they fare against Woodson."
If the defense can hold serve and keep the Wildcats contained, USC can try to get the passing game going. Kentucky's main weakness is stopping the run, but with tailbacks Cory Boyd and Mike Davis banged up, the running game may not be the best option.
So there's only one way to go. Spurrier can try to beat Kentucky using screens or short routes to his tailbacks, slot receivers or emergency options (even fullback Lanard Stafford's caught one this year) or he can line up Lecorn, Chris Culliver, Mark Barnes and some of the other USC speedsters and tell them to hit the sidelines and keep going.
"Freddie Brown and Jared Cook had some big receptions and really made some plays out there," Smelley said. "The other receivers are stepping up around Kenny and helping out."
It will be interesting to see if Spurrier loses patience with the small-ball offense and tells Smelley to chunk it deep. He's not happy with the passing game but he could be a lot more disappointed.
"We've got a long way to go, but we've got hope," Spurrier said. "We've got hope that Dion Lecorn, some of these young guys, they've got to get some balls coming their way."
Brown, who's been a mainstay in the starting lineup on the other side of McKinley, said he's starting to see more fire in practice. After the Gamecocks' first four games had McKinley, the two tailbacks and three tight ends as the team's leading receivers, Brown caught three passes for 50 yards against Mississippi State and helped relax his quarterback and his coaches.
"We're not trying to beat out the other receivers or nothing like that, we're just looking for a place to fit in," Brown said. "We're starting to get better chemistry. Hopefully we can get better as we go along."
NO. 8 KENTUCKY WILDCATS (5-0, 1-0 SEC) AT NO. 11 SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (4-1, 2-1), 7:30 P.M.
• TV: ESPN (cable channel 25 in Rock Hill)
• Radio: WRHM-FM (94.3)
• Series record: 11-6-1 USC
• Last game: USC 24, Kentucky 17, Oct. 7, 2006, in Lexington, Ky.
• Last week: Kentucky beat Florida Atlantic 45-17; USC beat Mississippi State 38-21
• Rankings: Kentucky is eighth in each poll. USC is 11th in the AP poll and 18th in the USA Today/coaches poll
• Tickets: Sold out
GAMECOCKS' KEYS TO VICTORY
• Pressure: Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson runs the Wildcats' offensive machine with his legs and arm, although he likes to pass to set up the run. If the Gamecocks can get immediate heat on him from end Eric Norwood or safety blitzes, perhaps they can shake him up enough to throw him off his game.
• Improve: Chris Smelley had a good -- not great -- game against Mississippi State, throwing for over 250 yards but airing out a few too many passes, including one that was intercepted in the end zone. If he can get some confidence flowing early, the Gamecocks could have enough firepower even if the game turns into a shootout.
• Hold on: The Gamecocks, particularly Emanuel Cook, have let two interceptions drop through their hands in the past two weeks, each which had a lot of daylight in front of them. Woodson doesn't throw many picks, but if one ball gets off a little rough, USC has got to be there to make it count.
If USC could exploit Kentucky's run defense, it'd be a little simpler to make the call. Cory Boyd and Mike Davis are banged up but should still play, so the game becomes a question of who can score more or who can make the biggest stop. This is the best Kentucky team in years, but the fact remains the Wildcats haven't really played a great defense. USC's pass defense is the top-ranked unit in the country and its run defense, while still far from solid, is getting better. There may be a lot of points, but the Gamecocks' D will have one more big play in the bag.
GAMECOCKS 30, WILDCATS 28