Morris: Gamecocks’ defense makes progress against Vandy

rmorris@thestate.comSeptember 15, 2013 

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7) tries to catch up to Vanderbilt running back Wesley Tate (24) during the second half of the Gamecock's game against Vanderbilt Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com

Talk all you want about South Carolina’s vaunted offense, the real interest in Saturday night’s game at Williams-Brice Stadium was the performance of the Gamecocks’ defense.

No doubting it, much progress was made.

Missed assignments, soft play by linebackers and the secondary, poor tackling. It all contributed to a forgettable performance in the loss to Georgia, which rolled up 41 points, 536 yards and a major hurt on the defensive unit’s pride.

Not so Saturday.

Granted, this was Vanderbilt, not Georgia. Vanderbilt has an all-star receiver in Jordan Matthews, but it has no Aaron Murray as a quarterback or Todd Gurley as a running back like Georgia.

No matter. What USC needed to find out is if it could line up properly, play assignments properly and properly take the fight to an opposing offense, no matter its firepower.

On most counts, that happened Saturday. It certainly happened enough to please Lorenzo Ward, USC’s defensive coordinator.

“Totally,” Ward said when asked if he was encouraged by his unit’s play.

Forget that Vanderbilt put 25 points on the scoreboard. One Vanderbilt touchdown scored on a 1-yard drive following a USC turnover. Another scored on a 19-yard drive following a turnover. A field goal came from 54 yards away to close out the first half. Vanderbilt’s longest drive included 10 plays and went 49 yards for a touchdown.

There were more important numbers than Vanderbilt’s scoring total. Consider this: USC limited the Commodores to 268 yards of offense. The Gamecocks’ defense forced its first two turnovers of the season. Vanderbilt was two of 12 on third-down conversions and managed 14 first downs.

Following the Georgia loss, USC coaches talked about needing to make changes, perhaps including personnel but also to include schemes. That is not what happened, according to Ward.

“A lot of times when things go bad, when you have failure, sometimes you think you have to overhaul,” Ward said. “But really, it’s just slight adjustment.”

Ward said, perhaps, he previously was asking too much of his younger players, particularly among the linebacker corps. So, he said, it was a matter of drawing a baseline and going back to nuts and bolts.

“So, we’ve got to go back to one-on-one football and just keep it simple and do some of the things we’ve done around here for a long time,” Ward said.

That meant placing an emphasis on stopping opponents on third down and forcing turnovers. In its opening two games, opponents completed 13 of 33 third downs and USC was unable to force a turnover.

From the get-go, the defense looked as if it was in an angry mood after last week’s humiliation. On Vanderbilt’s third play from scrimmage, defensive end Chaz Sutton smothered quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels for a 5-yard loss.

The tone was set.

Not until the second half did Vanderbilt seem to get into any kind of rhythm on offense. The Commodores ran 24 plays and moved the ball 94 yards in the first half. They managed four first downs.

If only USC could have bottled that first half.

After halftime, USC had trouble at times dealing with the Wildcat formation. And the secondary looked confused and out of sorts on Vanderbilt’s 19-yard touchdown pass from Carta-Samuels to Wesley Tate. It left several members of the USC secondary in finger-pointing mode.

Those instances were the exception on this night. For the most part, USC’s defense looked solid. It registered eight tackles for loss. Sutton had the one sack and combined with Mason Harris on another. Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Sharrod Golightly also had sacks.

Then, when Vanderbilt had a chance to pull within 3 points in the fourth quarter, cornerback Jimmy Legree secured the win with a nifty interception on a look-in pass from Carta-Samuels.

It all added up to a good baseline for the defense moving forward.