Coming in to Saturday’s game between South Carolina and No. 3 Georgia, quarterback Jake Fromm was taking care of the ball better than or as well as anyone in the country — no interceptions in five games and a 77.5% completion rate.
Then Israel Mukuamu happened. Three times.
Mukuamu had three interceptions in a game for the first time at any level of football. He was rewarded Sunday by being named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week. He’s the fourth South Carolina player to earn the honor since 2004 and the first since D.J. Swearinger in 2012.
Whenever it seemed like Georgia was threatening to take back the momentum or march down the field, South Carolina’s sophomore cornerback was there.
Just before halftime, tied 10-10 with Georgia looking to hustle down the field for a quick score? Mukuamu leaped in front of a jumping receiver for an interception and waltzed 53 yards for a touchdown.
“The first one, you know, he was under pressure thanks to the D-line. And I just broke on a ball and was able to take it to the house,” Mukuamu said.
Early in the fourth quarter, with Georgia entering Gamecock territory and trying to tie the game up? Mukuamu laid out and just barely kept the ball off the turf, upheld by video review.
“On the second one ... I believe it was like a curl rout, he threw it outside a little bit and I was just able with my reach to get it,” Mukuamu said.
Overtime, needing a stop for a fatigued defense and a struggling offense? The ball was tipped, and Mukuamu was waiting.
“The last one was a tip, and I was just able to get my hands on it,” Mukuamu said.
His three interceptions were tied for second most in a game in program history and outnumber the two career interceptions he had going into Saturday. With four on the season now, he’s poised to leap to the top of the SEC leaderboard, or very near it.
For coach Will Muschamp, who got his start coaching defensive backs, Mukuamu’s play on the second pick was particularly impressive.
“That’s a very difficult ball to defend, and he played it perfectly from my vantage point on the sideline,” Muschamp said. “ ... He continues to be very productive, and we’ve all got to continue to be very productive.”
Those three picks also marked a career high of the bad kind for Fromm — he’s only ever thrown two interceptions twice before. But going into Saturday, Mukuamu and South Carolina’s defense were confident they could give him trouble.
“Coach (Travaris Robinson) told us all week ... (Fromm) hasn’t thrown one pick yet, but they never played a defense like us, they never played a D-line like us. I was just able to get my hands on the ball,” Mukuamu said.
And just for good measure, Mukuamu added 11 tackles, second most on the team and another career high.
So when the final whistle sounded on USC’s 20-17 upset and he found his father, mother and brother at the hedges of Sanford Stadium for a hug, the feeling of it all was “just so surreal.”
“I’m just happy for the team. I mean, we worked so hard to get in this position, and thank God that we’re here and that we won the game.”
Who: South Carolina vs. Florida
When: noon Saturday, Oct. 19
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
Line: Florida by 7.5