It was just one game, but the response by South Carolina’s defense Saturday against Vanderbilt seemed to be a step in the right direction.
The Gamecocks forced a season-high five turnovers, four in a dominant second half, to send USC into the bye week feeling a little bit better about itself.
“Coach (Shawn) Elliott told us on Tuesday to go out and have fun and be ourselves,” junior linebacker Skai Moore said. “Enjoy our time out there. That’s what we did. We enjoyed it. There was a little bit different swagger we had. The defense was out there flying around, having fun. ”
It was certainly not a normal week, with the sudden departure of head coach Steve Spurrier on Monday night and Elliott taking over on Tuesday. But, Elliott’s fiery personality seemed to rub off on the defense.
After Vanderbilt kicked a field goal on its opening drive of the second half, South Carolina recorded three interceptions, forced a fumble, had two three-and-outs and took over on downs. On those seven drives, the Commodores gained 77 yards.
“I thought our defense stepped to the plate,” Elliott said. “They played an exceptional ballgame.”
The momentum turned when seldom-used Bryson Allen-Williams intercepted a Johnny McCrary pass at the Vanderbilt 45-yard line in the middle of the third quarter. Allen-Williams drifted back in coverage, tipped the ball up in the air and made a diving interception.
Allen-Williams was forced into action when T.J. Holloman was ejected late in the second quarter after he was flagged for targeting on a helmet-to-helmet hit.
“It was kind of easy with the older guys, Skai (Moore), Jonathan (Walton) coming to me telling this was my shot,” Allen-Williams said. “I had been waiting on an opportunity all season, and I had to capitalize. After the first couple of plays, it was just playing football again.”
That started the defensive onslaught. The next two Vanderbilt series were three-and-outs before Chris Lammons got his first career interception a play after the Gamecocks had turned it over.
Moore, who led the team with 11 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup, got into the act when his pick set up the Gamecocks for their final points to make it a two-score game with less than six minutes remaining.
On the next series, he stripped the ball away from McCrary and fell on the loose ball.
“It’s always good to get takeaways,” defensive co-coordinator Jon Hoke said. “I think we went the last two games without any, so it was a big emphasis. When you’re on the plus side of the turnover margin, it gives you a chance. Always.”
Now comes the part where South Carolina has to carry this momentum over to the five remaining games to try and salvage the season.
Elliott has been the offensive line coach since he’s arrived in Columbia, but feels his background with defense could be helpful moving forward.
“I will watch. I will ask questions. I am a defensive guy,” Elliott said. “I’m not going to go in and make any big-time changes, but I will ask how we can get better defensively. They played one heck of a game. Jon Hoke and that staff, Lorenzo Ward, played one heck of a game. They kept us right in it. As of right now, I don’t know what we’ll change. We’ll go and evaluate everything.”
“We’ll evaluate everything we’ve done through the beginning of the season and go back, look at it and make sure we do a good job of evaluating the players and schemes,” he said. “What hurt us, what we need to focus on. The bye week comes at a good time.”