Looking for consistency, South Carolina turns to defense. And it responds
Consistency has been a fleeting proposition for South Carolina this season, especially on offense since Deebo Samuel’s injury. But the Gamecocks received an infusion of confidence Saturday in a lopsided victory over Arkansas that they hope redirects the trajectory of their season.
While they traveled a scenic route to a 4-2 record thus far, the Gamecocks can still make an impact in the SEC East with upcoming opponents Tennessee and Vanderbilt, with a bye week in between before a potential huge meeting at Georgia. For a team that’s had a Jekyll and Hyde start to the season, it hopes the Arkansas win could be a turning point. The pressure is all but off after the 48 points were the most the Gamecocks have scored in the 19 games under coach Will Muschamp. Those points are also the most since 2013, also against Arkansas.
“For sure, we knew going into the game that it was a big game for us. We just had to come out there and play well and play hard,” quarterback Jake Bentley said. “That’s what we did and I think it is going to propel us for the rest of the season. We have a big game next week against Tennessee and then the bye week, so it’s another big game for us, another big SEC game. This will definitely help us and our confidence.”
Suddenly, the employment status of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is not the most talked about subject around Columbia. At least for the moment. It’s another in a string of up and down performances, particularly running the ball where the total yards per game has been 31-172-54-143-23-159. The potential is there, but putting that kind of rushing offense together in back-to-back weeks has yet to be done this season.
“I think it’s big for our confidence, especially on offense where we can run the ball like that and control the front, that’s what we’ve been looking for all year,” tight end Hayden Hurst said. “Then when your defense is playing the way they played tonight, that’s huge. We just feed off that energy.”
Most telling about the state of the offense was that running back Rico Dowdle had a team-high 61 yards, a season-best for him, and the 159 yards as a team were the second-most this season.
What’s more, it’s believed to be the first game in program history to have three defensive touchdowns. It reminded many Gamecock faithful to the recent glory days when Steve Spurrier had a defensive line with Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Chaz Sutton and brothers Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr.
While Dennis Wonnum and Dante Sawyer aren’t yet mentioned in the same breath as that group, they made a plenty big enough impact against Arkansas. Sawyer, for his part, forced his third fumble and second sack of the season.
The South Carolina defense held Arkansas to just 153 yards, or 3.12 per play, through the first three quarters. And for the game, the Razorbacks managed just 106 rushing yards.
Other than a quarterback scramble, and a speed sweep, Muschamp said, “we didn’t give up anything in the run game, that’s a marked improvement from where it’s been.”
This kind of performance shows the potential for the defense, and South Carolina is up to No. 5 in the SEC in scoring defense, but in all other major defensive categories, the Gamecocks are in the middle of the pack or worse.
Make no mistake, in Muschamp’s mind, he sees improvement. And if the Gamecocks have a prayer of making things interesting in the SEC East, or even playing spoiler against Georgia in November, they need more of the same from this defense.
“I don’t know that in our first six games, I’ve ever questioned our effort,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve questioned our buy in. I don’t question our want to. Has it always been exactly what you wanted? No. Let’s just cut to the chase. From an effort standpoint, our guys give effort.
“I don’t turn the tape and get disappointed like I was at times last year in how we competed. Our guys have a competitive edge about themselves in what they try and do. From that standpoint, as long as you get consistent effort, and you play with better toughness, which we have, I think we’ve improved from game one to game six.”