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Person: Injuries hit USC defense with Rebels on deck

THERE WAS NO REST FOR the South Carolina weary Sunday afternoon.

Less than 18 hours after their 38-16 victory against Florida Atlantic, the Gamecocks returned to the practice fields, which resembled one of those 24-hour, doc-in-the-box offices.

Backup defensive tackle Kenny Davis limped in wearing a protective boot on his right ankle. A few minutes later, starting d-tackle Nathan Pepper walked in holding a metal brace.

The brace was for Pepper's knee, which has undergone two surgeries. Pepper's current injury is the same as Davis': the dreaded high ankle sprain that lingers like out-of-town company.

An equipment manager entered next with a yellow jersey - good if you're in the Tour de France; bad if you're at football practice. The No. 31 jersey was delivered to tailback Kenny Miles, whose career game against FAU was interrupted by a bruised shoulder.

The rest of the walking wounded made it to the practice field - specifically, the defensive field. Adding Davis to the medical charts, the Gamecocks have six defensive starters or backups who are injured.

That would be tough sledding any week. But in a short week against a top-5 team with a first-round NFL pick at quarterback - well, let's just say this would not be a good week for Ellis Johnson to participate in take-your-child-to-work day.

"It's frustrating because we have to cut back to almost vanilla (schemes) because they're so many young players out there and so many kids out there that haven't practiced," said Johnson, assistant head coach for defense. "And then we're not good enough physically to overcome that right now. Hopefully, we'll get some of those guys back and move on from here."

A half hour after USC had disposed of FAU, Johnson's thoughts had turned to No. 4 Ole Miss, which visits Columbia for a nationally-televised Thursday night matchup.

Led by quarterback Jevan Snead, the Rebels are the third-highest scoring team in the country with 48.5 points per game, having sandwiched routs of Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana around a swine flu outbreak during the team's open date.

That is one health issue the Gamecocks have avoided. The good news for the USC defense is that only one player had a season-ending injury, although it was a biggie - a torn knee ligament for middle linebacker Rodney Paulk.

Two of USC's key defenders battling neck/shoulder stingers - defensive end Cliff Matthews and strong safety Darian Stewart - played against the Owls. Eric Norwood was pulled after the All-SEC linebacker bruised his shoulder.

Yet, the Gamecocks shut out FAU and forced three second-half turnovers after the Owls pulled to within 17-16 at halftime.

"With what we were trying to do and who we had on the field, it was about a half-magic trick," Johnson said.

The Gamecocks will not hit much this week, saving their tackles for Thursday night when they could have a couple of reinforcements along their interior.

Starting tackle Ladi Ajiboye is back from a three-game suspension, and Pepper hopes to give his ankle a go.

If not, Johnson might have to break out the magic kit again.

"We don't have a defensive unit right now. We've got a bunch of bodies," he said. "We've got a bunch of guys trying hard. But we're young in some spots, we're beat up in other spots. ... And other than effort and heart, there's nothing really you can look out there and say, 'We can hang our hat on that.'

"We're struggling. It's football. Sometimes it happens. ... You've got to kind of play your way and work your way through it."

Stewart, who was injured against Georgia, has been spending more time in the training room lately than his off-campus apartment - as many as two to three trips a day. He shrugged - as much the harness he was wearing would allow - when asked about facing Ole Miss with a dinged-up defense.

"We have to go to treatment and just get better. It's something we can't think about," Stewart said. "We just gotta keep going through it."

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