South Carolina defense perking up for Clemson
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s defense and its line of NFL standouts the past five years are big reasons for the unprecedented run of success against rival Clemson.
And while defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, safety D.J. Swearinger and cornerback Stephon Gilmore won’t suit up when this time, the Gamecocks’ defense is finding that familiar form at precisely the right time to try for a sixth straight win over the 23rd-ranked Tigers (8-3) on Saturday.
South Carolina (6-5) has yielded fewer than 300 yards of offense in wins over Florida and South Alabama the past two weeks. The Gamecocks, ranked last in Southeastern Conference defense earlier this month, had only one such effort in the first nine games.
“Every week getting better is definitely big for us,” South Carolina linebacker Sharrod Golightly said Tuesday. “Gaining that momentum, especially going into this big rivalry week, I think has helped us out a lot.”
South Carolina has typically let its big plays do the talking on defense against Clemson.
Clowney, the NFL’s No. 1 pick this past May, had 4 ½ sacks in the 27-17 victory the last time these teams met at Death Valley two years ago. Swearinger, Clowney’s Houston Texans teammate, flexed over Clemson tailback Andre Ellington after a crunching hit in the same game that drew a penalty flag but rallied the team for a successful finish.
Gilmore, the Buffalo Bills cornerback drafted No. 10 overall in 2012, may have gotten the run started when he shifted to wildcat quarterback and led a first-quarter touchdown drive to tie that game at 7-all. South Carolina scored a TD on its next sequence and has barely trailed since.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier believes each game stands on its own and won’t get caught up in streaks adding confidence to the rivalry even with South Carolina’s inconsistent play this season.
“If we have some confidence, it’s because we played pretty well the last two games, not because of what happened last year,” Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks have picked up 15 turnovers the past five games with Clemson, which averaging fewer than two a contest against every other opponent the previous five seasons.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris think the Tigers have had the personnel to go toe-to-toe with South Carolina, but make too many mistakes when it counts the most.
“For whatever reason, God chose me to be the head coach at Clemson for the most successful era in South Carolina history,” Swinney said.
South Carolina’s overall success was supposed to keep going and the Gamecocks were picked to win the SEC Eastern Division at the league’s football media days this summer. Instead, it was a series of meltdowns that began in game one with Texas A&M rolling up 680 yards of offense in a 58-28 debacle on college football’s opening weekend.
The defense kept crumbling with fourth-quarter collapses against Missouri, Kentucky and, perhaps most dramatically, against Tennessee, which went from down 42-28 with less than five minutes to play to a 45-42 overtime win four weeks ago.
But it was defensive play that bailed out the Gamecocks against Florida with two blocked kicks and several critical stops down the stretch for a 23-20 overtime win. Against South Alabama last week, the Gamecocks offense slopped around with an interception and four lost fumbles. South Carolina’s defense, though, came through with four interceptions, two apiece by linebacker Skai Moore and safety Brison Williams.
Spurrier has liked the pressure South Carolina’s defensive line has gotten the past two games after quipping earlier this year when asked, “Pass rush? What’s that?” The Gamecocks have four sacks the past two week after getting only eight in its first nine games.
“I think everybody’s getting better and when we each get better, the team gets better and we take steps forward,” Gamecocks defensive tackle J.T. Surratt said. “I’m happy to see that.”