Donell Stanley will never forget the sinking feeling of watching South Carolina blow a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter at Florida last year as the Gators rallied to beat the Gamecocks 35-31.
“That was a tough pill to swallow. It still haunts me til this day,” he said.
The Gamecocks, 5-3 at the time, led 31-14 with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Then the Gators cranked up their offense and dominated the fourth quarter, breaking off big run after big run and reeling off 21 unanswered points. South Carolina gained just 23 yards in the fourth quarter while Florida rolled up 528 yards of total offense in the game, including a staggering 367 yards on the ground as two Florida backs rushed for more than 100 yards.
“They ran the ball up and down the field, and then they came back and ran the ball some more,” linebacker Ernest Jones said.
“It was like a punch in the gut,” defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw said.
The disappointing loss started a downward spiral for South Carolina, which lost three of its final five games and had six straight losses to Power-5 opponents through the first four games of this season. They stopped that streak two weeks ago against Kentucky and used the momentum to score the biggest victory in the Will Muschamp era with a stunning upset at No. 3 Georgia Saturday.
Muschamp attributed last year’s second-half breakdown against Florida to conditioning, a lack of depth due to injuries and Florida’s ability to gets its skill players in open space on the perimeter.
“I think schematically we weren't as gap-sound as we needed to be, and we've tried to rectify those issues,” he said. “And we weren't as good as we needed to be defensively personnel-wise at that time of the season.”
The Gamecocks are much better on defense this season. They proved that last week in throttling a Georgia team that was averaging 43 points and more than 500 yards per game before falling to South Carolina, 20-17.
Led by a dominant defensive line, South Carolina had three sacks, six tackles for loss and forced four turnovers against the Bulldogs. The performance by the defense, which also shut down Kentucky two weeks ago, has given South Carolina more confidence entering Saturday’s rematch against No. 9 Florida.
“New year, new opportunity,” Kinlaw said.
“This year I feel like a lot has changed and we are going out there and just balling out,” defensive tackle Kobe Smith said.
This season started out much like that Florida game, however. The Gamecocks led 20-11 in the third quarter of the season opener against North Carolina when the defense broke down again and the Tar Heels walked away with a 24-20 win after putting together 90-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
Two weeks later, Alabama torched the Gamecocks with 571 yards — 495 passing — in a 47-23 win in Columbia.
But the following week, South Carolina played much better defensively at Missouri. Though the Gamecocks allowed 421 yards, the offense gave up 14 points off turnovers and the defense was on the field nearly 40 minutes due to the team’s offensive struggles.
After the Missouri loss, Muschamp sat by himself in the locker room and decided changes needed to be made on defense. He decided then that South Carolina would play more of a 4-3 scheme to get linebacker Sherrod Greene’s speed on the field instead of using a nickel and five defensive backs.
When the coaching staff arrived at the Football Operations Center that Sunday, Muschamp told them, “This is what we’re doing.”
With the defensive line controlling the line of scrimmage, the switch has allowed the three linebackers — Jones, Greene and senior T.J. Brunson — to roam free and make plays to help stop the running game. The Gamecocks gave up just 115 yards rushing against Kentucky and held a Georgia team that was averaging more than 250 yards per game on the ground to just 173 last week.
They have also tackled much better, missing just five tackles against Georgia after missing as many as 18 against Alabama. The three linebackers combined for 27 tackles against Georgia, including 2.5 for loss.
“I think we were able to find a way to get our best guys out there on the field, and the best way to stop the run was for us to be three linebackers and add Sherrod into the mix,” Jones said.
“That’s how we are playing our best brand of football, the best brand of defense, having that extra linebacker and Sherrod’s speed and be able to go down the line and tackle some of these backs behind the line and set the edges.”
Jones, the leader of the defense from his Mike/middle linebacker spot, said defenders were trying to do too much early in the season, leading to mistakes, missed assignments and missed tackles. He said the defense has refined its approach and is now playing as one unit.
“I feel like we play our best football when everybody is just doing their jobs. That’s what we had to finally realize,” he said. “Every time I go out there, every time I am on the bench, I am constantly repeating, ‘just do your job, just do your job. Do your job to the best of your ability.’ That works, that’s enough for us. That’s all we need. We don’t need superstars, none of that, just do your job.”
It worked against Kentucky and Georgia and the defense is now gaining confidence. The group repeatedly kept the Bulldogs out of the end zone last week, limited explosive plays and forced one of the best quarterbacks in the country into mistake after mistake.
“I think we have narrowed some things down that we feel like our players do extremely well,” Muschamp said. “I think our staff has done a really good job of identifying what our players feel comfortable playing … and I think our players have identified some things that they feel more comfortable playing with. And then, with a comfort level, you're going to play faster and instead of thinking, you're reacting. And you've got to do that on defense. You start thinking on defense with the speed that we face week-to-week, you'll get burned.”
Now the Gamecock defense believes it can play with anyone.
“It’s a relief because I knew we could do it. It was there,” Jones said. “There was no question at the beginning of the season whether we could tackle or not or hold these good offenses to minimal points. There was no question about that. We just had to find it. Somehow we had to get to it, and I believe the past few weeks … we were doing what we could do and doing our job, and it’s helped.”
“Really, it’s just confidence,” Brunson said. “Confidence in everything and trusting each other, playing together as a defense and playing off of each other.”