A bump in takeaways balances struggling South Carolina defense
A quick glance at the SEC defensive rankings isn’t going to make any Gamecock fan happy.
South Carolina is 13th in total defense (411.3 yards per game), 13th in scoring defense (26.3 points per game allowed), 12th in passing defense and 11th against the run.
While these numbers aren’t helping co-defensive coordinators Lorenzo Ward and Jon Hoke’s food go down any easier, there is a bright spot for the 2015 South Carolina defense.
It knows how to take the ball away.
Through four games, the Gamecocks are tied for second in the SEC with seven takeaways and, as a result, are tied for second in the league with a plus-4 turnover margin.
This is a dramatic improvement from last year’s numbers.
In 2014, South Carolina was tied for 11th in the SEC with a minus-2 turnover margin — due in large part to its 12th-place rank in takeaways (19).
When teams have trouble moving the football, the defense can help by forcing turnovers and putting its offense in good situations. This happened for the Gamecocks in Week 3.
Breaking in a true freshman at quarterback last week, South Carolina scored 13 points off Central Florida turnovers in a 31-14 victory. The two third-quarter interceptions helped Lorenzo Nunez and the South Carolina offense overcome a halftime deficit and eventually pull away from the Knights.
It was a strong second-half performance, and one that should build some confidence for the unit.
There are other reasons for optimism on the defensive side of the ball as well:
Even more takeaways?: As impressive as the takeaways are, they could be even better. The Gamecocks have recovered only one of five opponent fumbles this season. That’s a 20 percent recovery rate, when the national average is around 50 percent. So, it’s reasonable to expect more fumble recoveries in the weeks to come.
Pass rushers gaining experience: Ward is high on freshman defensive end Boosie Whitlow, who recently moved up the depth chart to second team at defensive end. “Boosie has a great first step,” Ward said. “I’m not saying he has the first step Jadeveon Clowney has, but he is pretty close.”
Junior college transfer Marquavius Lewis is also adjusting to life in the SEC. “He has had some good plays and some bad plays,” Ward said. “I know everybody is looking for Qua to sack a lot of quarterbacks, and I think it will come. In the first four games, he hasn’t had a tremendous amount of opportunities because we’ve played him inside. Maybe we’ll look at him on the outside some in the near future.”
Linebacker shuffle: Skai Moore moved outside and T.J. Holloman took over at starting middle linebacker last week, and the duo recorded 15 tackles and two interceptions. This new alignment, along with a return to full health for Jonathan Walton, might provide a spark for the defense going forward.
Timing is everything: What happens when a struggling offense meets an opportunistic defense? Usually, it’s turnovers, and lots of them. Missouri’s offense is last in the SEC, scoring just under 21 points per game, and it will have a true freshman quarterback, Drew Lock, making his first career start. The Tigers are also last in the league in rushing, so this looks like the perfect chance for the defense to build on a fast start this season in takeaways — and maybe boost the rest of those defensive numbers, too.