Given his defense’s lack of depth, Ellis Johnson couldn’t have been happier with the bend-but-not-break results of Thursday night’s big win over Southern Miss.
Johnson, USC’s assistant head coach for defense, had to field a unit that was missing starting linebacker Shaq Wilson and starting spur Antonio Allen due to hamstring injuries. Then starting cornerback Chris Culliver couldn’t play because of off-the-field issues. To top things off, safety D.J. Swearinger couldn’t play in the second half after getting his bell rung.
“With everything that’s going on, and with as few players as we had to put out there, I was really pleased,” Johnson said. “I think their execution was absolutely exceptional. We had probably about 14 or 15 kids that carried that whole game on their backs. I couldn’t be more proud of them. Some of them had no backups.”
The Golden Eagles gained 404 yards on 84 plays – 337 through the air – but the Gamecocks kept them out of the end zone until 1:33 remained in the game, when a number of backup defenders were on the field.
With Culliver out for undisclosed reasons, his mates in the secondary stepped up to lead the USC defense. That happened despite the Gamecocks being unable to run a nickel package in third-down situations due to the missing players.
Sophomore safety DeVonte Holloman picked off a deflected pass to stop a Southern Miss drive at the USC 15 in the first quarter.
Sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore broke up a long pass play by running stride-for-stride down the right sideline with standout Southern Miss receiver DeAndre Brown. He also made a key third-down tackle that helped hold the Golden Eagles to a field goal late in the second quarter as well as a fourth-down tackle inside the USC 10 in the final quarter.
Junior safety Akeem Auguste, who piled up a team-high eight tackles, was pleased he was cleared to play so he could do his part to help the defense. He called it critical that he not let the uncertainty of the NCAA investigation distract him.
“I just had to keep focused and stay together,” he said.
Auguste was pleased to see second-team cornerback C.C. Whitlock step up in Culliver’s place and get the job done.
“Cully is a big part of our defense, but we’ve got to overcome it,” Auguste said. “C.C.’s very capable. He started a couple of games last year so he knows the system. He knows what’s going on. Cully hopefully is getting back next week for the game against Georgia.”
Auguste admitted he was disappointed the second-teamers gave up the touchdown because it means more running in practice. But he was happy the first group held Southern Miss to a pair of field goals when the game was on the line.
“We take real pride in our end zone. We don’t let anybody get in our box,” he said.
Holloman added seven tackles and Gilmore finished with six. Spur Damario Jeffery, who was playing in place of Allen, also had six tackles.
“It was a team effort. I’m glad I’ve got my guys with me,” Auguste said. “They know I’ve got their backs, and I know they’ve got mine.”
USC coach Steve Spurrier also came away happy with the effort.
“Our defense played well,” he said. “Certainly to hold them to 13 points is good.”
Johnson, however, knows the ongoing issues will need to be resolved before starting SEC play against Georgia next week.
“We’ve got to look at some depth problems we have right now,” Johnson said. “It’s some serious stuff with injuries and other issues. We don’t have enough players to play certain packages. We’ll have to see what we can do about it.”