South Carolina made a number of mistakes in blowing a 20-9 fourth-quarter lead in its season-opening loss to North Carolina.
From poor offensive line play to dropped passes and two critical fourth-quarter turnovers, there was plenty of blame to go around.
But there was one glaring weakness that reared its ugly head once again, frustrating players, coaches and fans to no end.
North Carolina rolled up 483 yards of total offense, including 238 yards rushing, and ripped off big play after big play in the second half. The late-game performance was reminiscent of last year’s 35-31 loss at Florida, when the Gamecocks blew a 31-14 third-quarter lead.
Most of the late-game breakdowns on defense were due to poor tackling. After watching film of the North Carolina game, head coach Will Muschamp said his defense missed 18 tackles that led to more than 100 yards after contact.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said.
“We just didn’t bring our feet on tackles,” defensive end D.J. Wonnum said. “We were arm-tackling, trying to reach in, and players in this league, it don’t go down like that.”
“We just need to wrap up around our feet,” senior linebacker T.J. Brunson said. “At the end of the day, that’s what it came down to. We’ve been working on it, it’s not like we don’t do it at all. We just need to execute in those moments and when we are in those situations, make sure we stay to the technique and fundamentals of it.”
South Carolina struggled on defense last season, allowing 424 total yards per game and 193 yards rushing. Poor tackling was an issue, but with a deeper, more experienced defense, the group was expected to play better this season.
"We didn't have any issues in training camp. I didn't feel like there were any major issues there,” Muschamp said. “They're all teachable moments to go back and look at. I thought their backs ran hard and they had good backs, but we'll face good backs all year. So that's part of it, and we'll continue to work."
The South Carolina defense played well for three quarters, holding North Carolina to three field goals and stepping up in the red zone. The Gamecocks had three sacks, six tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.
But in the fourth-quarter, the defense allowed two long touchdown drives of 98 and 95 yards. Both drives took just seven plays and lasted a combined 5:37 as North Carolina broke off big runs and scored on pass plays of 22 and 17 yards.
Missed tackles were a big problem on both drives.
“There were a couple of plays … tackling was the big thing,” Wonnum said. “There were a few plays we left out there that could have changed the game. … We had wide-open tackles, we just have to bring our feet.”
Brunson said North Carolina did not catch South Carolina off guard with its play-calling. And it was not a lack of effort, he said, just poor execution.
“I don’t question effort, I don’t think that’s an issue anymore,” he said. “I think the things we need to work on are just the details, the small things. Those end up hurting you. [And] big things like tackling and understanding where eveyrthing is going and executing on those plays.”
Brunson and Wonnum were among the bright spots on defense. Brunson, who moved to the Will (weak-side) linebacker spot, had nine tackles, while Wonnum had seven, three for losses. Muschamp also praised the play of middle linebacker Ernest Jones and senior defensive tackles Javon Kinlaw and Kobe Smith.
Jones, who started at the Mike (middle linebacker) spot, led the Gamecocks with 12 tackles in his first career start.
"He made a lot of plays. I was pleased with his first real start at the Mike and directing our defense and some of the things he did,” Muschamp said. “I think he's only going to continue to improve and get better because he's a coachable guy. He's extremely intelligent, and I thought there were some really good things he did on the field Saturday."
“He’s going to be a solid player at the position,” Brunson said. “He got his calls in and got people lined up and did a really good job.”
While Brunson was playing a new position, Wonnum returned after missing most of last season with an ankle injury and made an immediate impact with three tackles for loss — he had 3.5 in five games last season.
But a strong performance in his return didn’t matter to Wonnum.
“I felt OK. There were some plays I missed,” he said. “But we lost the game, so I wasn’t really happy about it.”