Wonnum, one of a only a few players in program history to be named a team captain as a sophomore, went down with an ankle injury in the season opener against Coastal Carolina. Without him, the Gamecocks’ run defense suffered and USC ranked 101st in sacks per game.
His return on Saturday against Tennessee made for a nice pregame morale boost, combined with the fact that his younger brother Dylan, a true freshman, was making his first career start on the offensive line.
Once the game actually started, however, Wonnum had a quiet start on the stat sheet, not recording any stops in the first quarter while Tennessee marched out to a quick lead. His first tackle of the game came midway through the second quarter and wasn’t enough to stop a 15-play, 71-yard touchdown drive for UT.
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Still, his presence alone made a difference, redshirt senior pass rusher Bryson Allen-Williams said.
“Just working with him, being with him, it just makes my job a lot easier having him on the other side,” Allen-Williams said.
After halftime, however, Wonnum came up with some critical stops of his own. In the third quarter, he burst through the line for a one-yard sack to force a third down, and combined with a penalty, that pushed Tennessee back for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
Then, with Tennessee facing fourth-and-10 late in the fourth quarter, trailing 27-24 and needing a conversion to give itself a chance, Wonnum found his way into the backfield again and stuffed UT quarterback Jared Guarantano for a four-yard loss, appearing to force a fumble in the process.
That fumble was called back after a review, but the stop still effectively sealed the game. It also tied Wonnum with defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw for the most sacks in a game this year by a South Carolina player.
“I told him when we were walking back, ‘You the GOAT,’ ” Allen-Williams said. “That’s my guy. I see the way he practices, see the way he trains, the way we compete with each other, he’s a talented player, so I’m glad to have him back.”
“It felt great,” to effectively end the game, Wonnum said. “While I was hurt, I worked for it, just kept working, kept working, never got done, and I came back and made a big play.”
For coach Will Muschamp, however, Wonnum’s return was about far more than the sacks and tackles he recorded against Tennesse. It was about the steadying presence the veteran brought to the defense in yet another tight game with the Vols.
“We’ll watch the tape. D.J.’s a good football player. He’s very productive in everything he does. It’s great to have him back,” Muschamp said, laughing. “He’s a very good football player, but he also gives you a presence on your football team as far as leadership and calmness and how we play. A lot of people look to D.J. when things aren’t going so well.”
That was especially crucial Saturday, as Muschamp described South Carolina’s third-down defense, which had been one of the few areas where the team was among the best in the country, as “atrocious” against Tennessee. The Vols converted 11 of 16 third downs, the first time a USC opponent has posted a mark above 50 percent this season.
However, the Gamecocks came up with a pair of third down and fourth down stops on Tennessee’s final two drives of the game to shut out UT in the fourth quarter, with a huge assist from Wonnum. And crucially, he seemed to end the game in full health.