RALEIGH — Throughout the preseason, South Carolina assistant head coach Ellis Johnson marveled at the speed and athleticism of his young defense. What Johnson was less certain about was how the newcomers would respond to adversity.
Now he knows.
With the game in the balance Thursday night, the Gamecocks’ defense came up with a pair of key, fourth-quarter stops to turn back N.C. State in a hard-earned 7-3 victory before a crowd of 57,583 at Carter-Finley Stadium.
USC won its 10th consecutive season opener, although this one was much closer than last year’s 34-0 shutout of the Wolfpack in Columbia.
It marked USC’s first victory when scoring under 10 points since a 7-3 decision at Memphis State on Oct. 2, 1971.
When the Gamecocks’ offense and field goal unit failed to put the game away, the defense came through to push Steve Spurrier’s record to 19-1 in season-opening games.
Spurrier was grateful, giving the defense a standing ovation in the locker room and presenting game balls to a number of defensive players.
“Our defensive guys played their hearts out,” Spurrier said. “Played good, solid football.”
USC’s two defensive captains — linebacker Eric Norwood and defensive end Cliff Matthews — each had two sacks and were instrumental in keeping State quarterback Russell Wilson in check.
Wilson, the ACC’s offensive player of the year in 2008, had several scrambles where it looked like he was going to break off a long gain, only to be run down by Norwood, Matthews or linebacker Shaq Wilson.
Wilson, who replaced Rodney Paulk after Paulk sustained what is believed to be a season-ending knee injury, tied Norwood for the team high in tackles with eight stops in the most extensive action of his career.
USC sacked Wilson six times and held him to minus-17 yards rushing.
“We couldn’t get anything going,” N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said. “And with our pass protection, we had Russell Wilson running around too much.”
USC defensive end Devin Taylor, a redshirt freshman from Beaufort who replaced the suspended Clifton Geathers, had a huge impact in his first career start. Taylor forced a fumble on N.C. State’s first play from scrimmage to set up USC’s lone touchdown, and later blocked a punt in Wolfpack territory.
A year after limiting State to 138 total yards and 10 first downs, USC’s defense nearly duplicated its performance by holding the Wolfpack to 133 yards and 11 first downs. And while his unit took a couple of personnel hits in the secondary, Johnson believes this year’s defense is faster than last year’s.
“Speed always helps,” Johnson said. “Recovery speed is something you can’t coach.”
USC clung to a four-point lead in the fourth quarter as a result of several missed scoring opportunities. A touchdown pass to Tori Gurley was nullified because of a pass interference call on Gurley, and the Gamecocks also blew two field goal chances — one on a bad snap and the other a missed 27-yard attempt by Spencer Lanning.
After the Wolfpack drove to the USC 38-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and defensive line coach Brad Lawing told Spurrier they wanted a timeout. Defensive players caught their breaths, switched from a four-man to a three-man front, and held the Wolfpack to 2 yards on three plays after the timeout, forcing a punt.
But State had another shot after Rashard Smith’s 31-yard punt return gave the Wolfpack possession at midfield with 4:15 remaining. Wilson started to pick on USC freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore, whose pass-interference penalty moved the ‘Pack to the 32-yard line.
Facing a fourth-and-11 four plays later, State took a timeout. Walking back on the field, USC defensive tackle Travian Robertson told Gilmore that Russell was going to come after him again.
“I got your back,” Gilmore told him.
As Wilson lofted a pass into the end zone for Jarvis Williams, Gilmore jumped up and pulled the ball away from Williams for a game-saving breakup.
Gilmore said he knew State would throw his way. “But I like stuff like that,” he said, “so I just had to make a big play on the ball.”
Big plays were the norm for a young defense that grew up a lot in the year’s first test.
Video highlights from the N.C. State and South Carolina game
Video by Travis Long/Raleigh News & Observer