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December 15, 2010

Sack-Fest in Atlanta?

If he plays, Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder may not have too much time to test out his ailing elbow. Ditto for backup E.J. Manuel. And don't think South Carolina's Stephen Garcia will be simply sitting in the pocket, waiting for his receivers to get open.

Quarterbacks on each side should be doing plenty of running at the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

"I read somewhere where they led the nation in sacks," coach Steve Spurrier said last week. "I think we're third or fourth or something like that."

He was right on both accounts. The No. 23 Seminoles (9-4) have 46 sacks this season, the most in the country. The 19th-ranked Gamecocks (9-4) have 39, tied with NC State for fourth-most.

Quarterbacks will have to keep their eyes on marauding defensive linemen while the offensive line may be working overtime. It's probably a safe bet that Ponder/Manuel and Garcia will rely on healthy doses of their running backs when the teams get together in Atlanta.

The Gamecocks' line has done a much better job protecting Garcia this year, and he has done a much better job of running out of danger. While Spurrier has been quick to criticize Garcia in the past for scampering too quickly and not letting the play develop, it has seemed to be mostly a perfect mix this year.

USC has given up 25 sacks but feels good about the mobility of Garcia, whether on designed or forced runs. And if it came to him, backup Connor Shaw has quicker feet than the player he's under.

What Garcia will have to spy on is the Seminoles' pair of ends, Brandon Jenkins to his left and Markus White to his right. Jenkins has 13 sacks while White has eight, and 12 others on FSU's defense have contributed to the nation-leading sack total.

On the flipside, the Seminoles have given up 28 sacks this year and feature two looks, not the one that the Gamecocks will have. Ponder is more of the drop-back type, prone to getting hit after standing too long in the pocket, while Manuel can take himself out of trouble. They will also have to keep their eyes on the middle of the line, not just the edges.

Defensive tackle Melvin Ingram can play with his hand in the dirt or just behind the line as an extra linebacker. He leads the Gamecocks with eight sacks despite not being an every-down player. End Devin Taylor, who has become the most consistent pass-rushing threat, has 7.5 sacks and sometimes decoys, dropping into pass coverage while Ingram charges.

USC can also come at a quarterback with spur Antonio Allen, who shouldn't have nearly the problem he had during the SEC Championship Game, no matter who takes the snaps for Florida State. While Allen tried to waist-tackle Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton and slid right off, Ponder and Manuel shouldn't be able to shake Allen that easily (although Manuel may drop-step, duck or run ahead to avoid the hit).

Twelve Gamecocks have contributed to the sack total, but the team had none against Auburn. Florida State had three in its ACC Championship Game loss to Virginia Tech. Each will try to keep their season averages going in the last game of the season.

USC will no doubt try to get tailback Marcus Lattimore the ball early and often, since he dictates the pace of the Gamecocks' offense. The Seminoles run the ball by committee, and will wait to finalize their offense once Ponder returns to practice on Dec. 26.

But each quarterback would be wise to break out their special-occasion P.F. Flyers, just in case.



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