After USC safety DeVonte Holloman got beat on a 55-yard pass play that gave Georgia a first-and-goal late in the third quarter and the Gamecocks leading 14-6, he knew it was important to gather himself.
Two plays later, he stripped the ball from Georgia running back Washaun Ealey inside the 5, and teammate Stephon Gilmore recovered to stop the Bulldogs.
“I was kind of down after giving up that big play, but coach (Ellis) Johnson tells us to take it one play at a time. I had a chance to make another play, and I came up big on that one,” Holloman said.
The Bulldogs never again got that close to the end zone.
“That was a huge back-breaker for them because they were controlling the game at that time,” said Johnson, the assistant head coach for defense. “When we were able to turn the ball over down there on what I felt like was a series where they outplayed us several plays in a row, that was a huge play. Anytime you turn the ball over in the red zone, it’s huge.”
Holloman, the sophomore from Rock Hill’s South Pointe High who led the team with seven tackles, saw an opening and took advantage.
“Me and the linebacker were coming in for the tackle at the same time, and I saw him holding it kind of loose so I stripped it,” he said.
Coach Steve Spurrier was worried the Gamecocks were about to let the Bulldogs close the gap and turn it into a different game heading into the final quarter.
“That was a good play by DeVonte to strip that guy on the run and cause that fumble, because it’s getting ready to go 14-12 or 14-14 or 14-9,” he said. “So that was a crucial play in the game.”
More importantly, USC’s defense made another statement, this time against a better opponent than Southern Miss. The Gamecocks won 41-13 in the opening week, with the only touchdown allowed late by mostly backups. Although the defense has given up some yards, it has made it very tough for opponents to come away with touchdowns.
“It means a lot. We really didn’t give up a touchdown last week until the fourth quarter. We’re just working hard defensively to keep it that way,” Holloman said. “(We) bend but don’t break. We give up a field goal, but trying to keep people out of the end zone is what we want to do.”
Spurrier calls that the ultimate goal for the defense.
“Our guys know how to give up a little inside and hang tough on the goal line,” Spurrier said. “The biggest statistic of all good defensive teams is how many points they give up.”
It helped from a depth standpoint this week that cornerback Chris Culliver was back after being held out the first game and that safety D.J. Swearinger returned from a concussion after missing the second half last week against Southern Miss.
“It was a big difference,” Gilmore said. “We got to rest sometimes. We didn’t have to play every snap.”
Of course, it also helped the Gamecocks didn’t have to defend All-SEC receiver A.J. Green, who was suspended by the NCAA for selling a game jersey. That took away a big-play component for the Bulldogs.
“The big thing they missed was that vertical strike,” Johnson said. “They’re going to throw him three long balls a game, and he’s usually going to get two out of three. That changes field position and everything else.”
Although he could nitpick about not getting enough pressure on the quarterback or missed assignments, Johnson could not find much to complain about.
“Nobody has touched our end zone except when we let a few of our kids and backups play the first game. I think that shows a lot of heart about these players,” Johnson said.
Georgia, which gained 253 totals yards, also was held to five three-and-outs by the Gamecocks, who put an exclamation point on the victory with a sack by end Devin Taylor on the game’s final play.
“The thing I really like about our kids is we’ve gotten our backs to the wall and responded,” Johnson said.