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Wildcats set to take on South Carolina's fearsome front four

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Maxwell Smith is expected to play against South Carolina after sitting out last week against South Carolina. (Hunter Wilson, UK Athletics) Maxwell Smith is expected to play against South Carolina after sitting out last week against South Carolina. (Hunter Wilson, UK Athletics)
Joker Phillips has an idea about how to improve college football.

It's nothing to do with a playoff system, conference realignment or recruiting rules, but if his suggestion were heeded, the playing field in college football would be leveled significantly.

He looks at South Carolina's defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor and sees the kinds of players that every team in America should have.

"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 said.

Of course, Phillips knows how far-fetched that proposition is. Players with the kind of size, speed and strength of Clowney (a 6-foot-6, 256-pound sophomore) and Taylor (a 6-foot-8, 267-pound senior) don't grow on trees. There aren't nearly enough pass rushers of their caliber to go around, but the Gamecocks have managed to collect a pair of them, meaning Kentucky will have to find a way to cope with both, as well as the rest of South Carolina's deep and talented defensive line that ranks among the nation's leaders in sacks.

In fact, the Gamecocks are registering nearly as many sacks per game (3.75) as the Kentucky offensive line has allowed all season (four). UK protected well against a strong Florida defensive front, as Morgan Newton and Jalen Whitlow were basically untouched in 27 combined pass attempts last week. However, the sixth-ranked Gamecocks - led by Clowney, whom many believe is the future No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick, with 4.5 sacks - are a different level of competition in the trenches.

"They're defensive front is far-and-away the best defensive front we will have seen this year," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. "Not only are they fast, but they're tall. You've got ends, and the shortest one (Chaz Sutton) is 6-5. You feel like you can throw over him."

With a roster full of pass-rushing dynamos, South Carolina rarely draws up blitzes. More often than not, it's the front four getting to the quarterback with the rest of the defense sitting back in coverage.

Fortunately for the Wildcats, their offensive line is in a much better place than it was a season ago when it matched up against South Carolina. The relatively inexperienced group has thrived in UK's new no-huddle offense. Last weekend against Florida, Kentucky may have been held scoreless, but the line wasn't to blame.

"I thought those guys did really well up front, opening up some holes and understanding the protection and all the blitzes that we were giving," Phillips said.

UK rushed for 159 yards on 32 attempts (5.0 yards per carry) last week. A similar performance on Saturday at 7 p.m. against a South Carolina defense allowing just 2.0 yards per carry and fewer than 70 yards per game could be the key to stymieing the pass rush and giving the quarterback time to throw.

"Playing against guys that weigh that much and are that strong and that physical, it's always tough," center Matt Smith said. "It comes down to the basics as an offensive line. We have to work together as an offensive line in order to move those guys and to protect our quarterback."

The good news this week is that it will be Maxwell Smith the line is trying to protect.

The sophomore was a late scratch against Florida with a sprained AC joint after Phillips opted not to risk Smith's long-term health. In his absence, Newton and Whitlow struggled to sustain the passing game that had been effective the season's first three weeks.

A healthy Smith is a far different quarterback from the freshman who threw two interceptions in three attempts last season in a 54-3 loss at South Carolina. That lopsided loss stung, but Smith and his teammates are putting it behind them.

"We got crushed last year," Smith said. "We're just going to come out and keep fighting like any other week. It doesn't really matter what happened last year, that's in the past. We're worried about this South Carolina team."

Those worries extend well beyond the matchup between Kentucky's offense and the South Carolina defense.

Quarterback Connor Shaw has dealt with injury this season, but is expected to be fully available on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium and enters the game having completed 20 passes in a row. His first attempt last weekend against Missouri fell incomplete, but he finished 20-of-21 for 249 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Shaw also had 41 yards rushing in that 31-10 win and had an 80-yard touchdown burst called back after a penalty.

To put it more succinctly, he's a threat in both the passing game and running game, where junior Marcus Lattimore still stars.

"He's a tough guy," Phillips said of Shaw. "I think last year may have been his really first true start against us last year, and they did some things. They kind of tweaked their offense that week against us, and you see a lot of the same things that they did against us last year they're doing this year."

Shaw completed 26-of-39 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns to go with his 42 yards on the ground last season against Kentucky.

In that game, Shaw hardly played in the fourth quarter, but South Carolina scored 21 points to make an ugly loss even uglier. The Gamecocks were inspired in part by UK's comeback 31-28 upset of South Carolina in 2010, Steve Spurrier's first loss to the Wildcats.

"It's understandable because we beat them two years ago when we shouldn't have," Matt Smith said. "We came out ready to play that game when they were just coming off a huge win and were able to beat them here. It's kind of set up in the same situation this year. Hopefully we can do the same thing."

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