Vanderbilt looks to keep unbeaten season alive
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)
Quarterback Larry Smith has no doubt Vanderbilt's playing its biggest game against No. 12 South Carolina, even if his reasons don't match up with how others view Saturday's contest between the Southeastern Conference unbeaten.
"It's the most important game on our schedule right now because it's the next game," Smith said. "We're not really focused on the rankings or anything like that."
Vanderbilt (3-0, 1-0 SEC) enters with a chance to take an early edge in the Eastern Division against the defending division champion Gamecocks (3-0, 1-0).
The Commodores have surprised many, including South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, with their fundamental, passionate approach to the game.
"Vandy comes in probably as upbeat and ready to play as they've ever been since I've been here," Spurrier said. "They're 3-0, just like us. Statistically, defensively, they're one of the best in the conference in almost every category."
And the best in the country in some, too. The Commodores lead with the nation with 10 interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns, in opening 3-0 for the first time since 2008. That was also the last time - and only one between 1983 and now - that Vanderbilt wound up in a bowl game.
Smith's not focused on milestones or bowls, just playing like Vanderbilt has the first three weeks.
"It's just go out there and play our game, and we'll be fine," he said.
That's what happened the last few times. Vanderbilt ended an 0-14 record against Spurrier in 2007 at Williams-Brice Stadium. Back then, the Gamecocks were 6-1 and ranked No. 6, yet the Commodores won 17-6. Vanderbilt backed it up a year later with a 24-17 victory in Nashville.
While South Carolina has won the past two, 14-10 and 21-7, neither game was easy. Gamecocks center T.J. Johnson said his team will be ready to face Vanderbilt's best.
"It's a ring game for us," he said. "This game is as important as any game, it's an SEC game. We can't take Vandy lightly at all."
Vanderbilt's defense has been solid this year. Lineman Tim Fugger leads the SEC with three sacks and linemate Rob Lohr leads with 51/2 tackles for loss. Cornerback Trey Wilson is the SEC leader with three interceptions and seven passes defended.
The Commodores haven't faced a challenge like South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore, though. Lattimore missed last year's contest with an injury but enters this game on the best run of his college career.
Lattimore leads the nation with 534 yards after setting a career high with 246 yards in South Carolina's 24-21 victory over Navy. Lattimore has seven touchdowns in three games as Spurrier depends on the sophomore more and more to close out victories.
Lattimore is averaging 178 yards a game, more than twice the average that Vanderbilt has allowed in beating Elon, Connecticut and Mississippi.
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has emphasized that all 11 defenders must rush to the ball if they hope slow down Lattimore. Then again, the Commodores' first-year coach isn't sure that's doable.
"I think Marcus Lattimore is going to play well, and they're going to give him the ball enough that he's going to have some statistics," Franklin said.
South Carolina assistant coach in charge of defense, Ellis Johnson, said his players will have their hands full slowing down Vanderbilt's option attack. It hasn't helped that the Gamecocks' confidence that they've been hit for big yardage despite beating East Carolina, Georgia and Navy.
"Playing three really good football teams offensively and having all be very different has certainly challenged our players mentally," Johnson said. "We'll have to see if it helps our development."
Spurrier keeps hoping that his passing game, struggling despite fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia and All-SEC receiver Alshon Jeffery, finally breaks loose. If not, he said he'll do what he's done so far down the stretch - hand the ball to Lattimore.
"If we're going to be a good team, it's about time we started looking like one," Spurrier said.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.