Lost in South Carolina’s offensive and overall struggles is a small ray of light on the defensive side of the ball. A Gamecocks defense that has been the team’s biggest problem the last two years is suddenly its strength, ranking fifth in the SEC in scoring defense.
“I’m not really a stat guy, but we are starting to play more as a team and rely on each other more,” senior safety Chris Moody said. “We just have to keep playing and keep trusting each other and it’ll get better.”
South Carolina (2-2 overall, 1-2 SEC) held a Kentucky offense that had been averaging more than 34 points per game to 17 last week, although the Wildcats were playing with backup quarterback Stephen Johnson.
The test gets tougher for the Gamecocks on Saturday when No. 9 Texas A&M comes into Williams Brice Stadium. The Aggies (4-0, 2-0) are second in the SEC in total offense (545.8 yards per game) and third in scoring offense (43 points per game). They have five players (running backs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford, wide receivers Josh Reynolds and Christian Kirk and quarterback Trevor Knight) who are averaging more than 60 all-purpose yards per game.
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“They’re going to create some space plays,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said. “You’re going to have to tackle in space against some very skilled guys. That’s part of it. Part of it goes without saying we’re playing a tempo offense. We have to have a great tempo and urgency about ourselves as far as getting aligned and getting in the right spots, getting your eyes in the rights spots and seeing and reading your keys because that is where they hurt you. They get you off-kiltered a little bit, they get you bounced out of a gap and they have very skilled athlete hitting an A gap zone and all of a sudden he’s in your secondary, your second level and that’s a problem.”
The Gamecocks’ goal each game is to hold their opponents to 16 or fewer points, which will be a challenge this week.
“It used to be 13 a while back and we’ve kind of looked at each year where the cut off is for the top defenses in college football,” Muschamp said. “When we were at LSU, we led the country in about everything and were about 12 points per game, which is really good. That’s kind of the way football has changed a little bit. Everyone is taking more snaps and there is a lot more opportunities to score. We’ve kind of bumped that up the last couple of years to 16 points. That’s probably in today’s day in age a pretty good goal. The bottom line is to win the game. That’s the number one goal, to win.”
Every South Carolina defender questioned this week credited improved communication with the team’s defensive improvement.
“We were kind of confused out there (early in the season), but now it’s just full speed everything,” cornerback Chris Lammons said. “Everybody is playing much faster. It’s just time in the system. We are just playing faster as we learn the system.”
Communication might be more difficult this week than it was last week as the Gamecocks crowd will be at its loudest when Texas A&M has the football. South Carolina has practiced with crowd noise this week to help its defense prepare for that, and the defense can use hand signals if necessary, Muschamp said.
“Because of their tempo and because of our crowd noise, we need to have our best day on Saturday,” Muschamp said.
South Carolina’s defense is not yet a brick wall, certainly. The Gamecocks are 11th in the league in total defense (399.3 yards per game) and eighth in yards allowed per play (5.32). There are bright spots, though. Their 27 tackles-for-loss are the third most in the SEC and their nine sacks rank sixth in the league. South Carolina’s pass defense is ranked second in the SEC (200.8 yards per game allowed).
“We just have to come to play,” linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “If we come to play and we worry about us, it can be what it’s going to be. We have to limit those perimeter runs and we have to limit those big gains. I feel like if we come to play, we can play with anybody in the nation. That’s just how I feel about our team. I’m excited to see what we’re going to do this weekend. We focus on us and we play at our standard, I feel we can beat these guys, I’m going to say beat them but you know go in there and give them a hard fight.”