After winning a school-record nine games this season, second-ranked South Carolina (9-0) has its eyes clearly focused on getting invited to a major bowl on New Year's Day. And the confident Gamecocks don't plan to let injury-riddled Navy (3-5-1) stop their progress when the teams meet Saturday at Annapolis at 12:20.
USC Coach Joe Morrison's team is coming off an impressive 38-26 victory over Florida State. Next week, it's Clemson. Navy couldn't have picked a worse time to play the Gamecocks.
"Our coaches are a bit nervous about Saturday and I don't think we can take them lightly," said Morrison via a telephone hookup to the Midshipmen's weekly press luncheon today. "Our players are handling this sudden deluge of national press attention pretty good. But we've played very well lately. Our defense has given up some points but sometimes that is deceiving because it depends where the team's offense gets the ball. I know we haven't given up too many long drives."
Navy hasn't had too many long drives lately. Against Syracuse, Navy didn't have too many of anything, especially yards (113) in a 29-0 loss.
Coming off such a poor offensive showing and facing such a quick, aggressive team is a major concern for Midshipmen Coach Gary Tranquill.
"We have to control the ball and have no turnovers," Tranquill said. "Syracuse was pretty basic defensively but South Carolina blitzes, stunts, shows you a lot of things. They're a very mobile team with a lot of quickness. After they beat us last year (31-7), I knew they would be a good team again.
"We won't prepare for them any differently than we would for any team. I just hope our guys just understand this is a great situation for them, playing the No. 2 team in the nation. If they really play well, we could knock them off."
For the Midshipmen to have a chance to be competitive with South Carolina, they must get a consistent passing performance from Bob Misch, who is playing in place of Bill Byrne (broken leg). Tranquill said tight end Mark Stevens (bruised kneecap) will probably play, as will guard Doug Rhodes (broken hand). Punter Mark Colby (sprained ankle), safety Eric Wallace (hamstring) and fullback John Berner (hip pointer) are questionable.
"The last two weeks have been difficult for us," Tranquill said. "We lost a tough game to Notre Dame (18-17) and lost to Syracuse. It will be very important for us to establish some continuity early against South Carolina."
Moving the ball against South Carolina's defense -- nicknamed the "Fire Ants" and looking positively menacing in those fire-engine red uniforms -- can be a problem. Linemen Willie McIntee and Frank Wright and linebacker James Seawright have led a unit that has 28 sacks and has thrown runners for 80 losses amounting to more than 370 total yards. Cornerback Bryant Gilliard has seven of the team's 19 interceptions and recovered three of the 12 fumbles.
South Carolina has been even more successful on offense. The Gamecocks have totaled more than 4,000 yards for an average of 448 and have 14 players who have scored. The Gamecocks lost running back Kent Hagood with a broken leg but Tom Dendy and Quintin Lewis have combined for more than 900 yards rushing and scored 10 touchdowns. Morrison alternates Allen Mitchell (700 yards running and passing, seven touchdown passes) and Mike Hold (1,000 total yards, six scoring passes).
Tranquill says Hold is especially dangerous.
"Hold reminds you of a (Boston College's Doug) Flutie. He is so good at creating, improvising when in trouble. He always seems to come up with the big plays. They are a big-play team. Against Florida State, I think they had more than 320 yards on just nine plays. They can run a kickoff back, break a long run. We can't let them break the long one or get six and seven yards at a time on drives, either."