There were points in South Carolina’s 37-35 win against Missouri when the situation in the secondary was just short of catastrophic.
Former walk-on Javon Charleston saw meaningful snaps late the first half at safety, ahead of two four-star players. Corner Keisean Nixon got pulled several times for miscues, including a gratuitous personal foul. Safety Steven Montac, the veteran anchor on the back end, had several bad plays in run support, one that allowed a back to spring for 59 yards.
But in those struggles, young players were asked to step up, and several responded.
“Israel (Mukuamu) did a really nice job for a true freshman under these circumstances against a quarterback like that,” Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said. “Jam (Williams) made a fantastic play on our sideline. We baited him into the deep ball throw on our sideline. We’ve got guys continuing to come on.”
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That’s to say nothing of corner Jaycee Horn, a true freshman who bounced between nickel and outside corner, making three tackles and breaking up four passes, several in South Carolina’s end zone. Muschamp also credited freshman R.J. Roderick for his work on special teams, and veteran Rashad Fenton for his work in coverage.
Horn has been an anchor for USC’s defensive backfield all season, but this was a solid return game for Mukuamu, the 6-foot-4 freshman. He’d seen work later in the two blowouts that opened USC’s season, but had not seen a snap on defense against Vanderbilt or Kentucky.
Mukuamu didn’t register any stats, but he helped stabilize things.
“We always knew they could play,” Montac said. “Izzy was just waiting for his opportunity. He got his number called and he just played really, really good. He’s been playing really good on special teams, too, but nobody sees it.
“They were ready to play.”
Williams also came up with a few vital plays amid the secondary’s struggles. He corralled a crucial interception late, ending a Missouri drive in the final six minutes. He also came out of nowhere to bat away a ball in the end zone and prevent a touchdown in the first half, part of a stellar red zone performance.
At times, the Gamecocks defense managed to work together, front and back helping one another.
“We get pressure to the quarterback, we know we’re going to make them get the ball out fast,” defensive end/linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “We know we’ve got talented players on the back end to make the plays for us.”
Despite the numerous struggles against the run, South Carolina had a decent performance against Missouri’s oft-prolific passing game. Tigers quarterback Drew Lock completed only 47 percent of his passes, though he did have five completions for 15 yards or more.
His 204 yards were his lowest since a loss to Purdue last season.
The Gamecocks come out of the game without much true stability. Nixon remains hit-and-miss. The safety spot is still unsettled at best.
But Muschamp hasn’t been shy about playing young players who earn it, and has a simple credo, even for veterans.
“If they don’t play good, they go on the bench,” Muschamp said.