By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
While South Carolina’s offense struggled in the steady rain Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gamecock defense had its best game of the season.
Though the Gamecocks did not score in the sloppy second half, the defense shut out Akron in the final two quarters and allowed the fewest points under head coach Will Muschamp in the 28-3 win.
“Our defense bailed us out time and time again,” quarterback Jake Bentley said. “I’m proud of them for the way they played.”
The Carolina defense, which has been decimated by injuries, has struggled most of the season, giving up an average of 29 points and 440 total yards per game, including 744 last week at Clemson.
But with several young players standing out on defense, the Gamecocks held Akron to just 260 yards and the fewest points ever allowed under Muschamp. They forced four turnovers, including a special teams touchdown by Deebo Samuel, and had a season-high five sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
“We played the way we should today,” Muschamp said.
Muschamp singled out the play of freshman defensive lineman J.J. Enagbare, who moved to defensive end due to injuries. Enagbare had a team-high six tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
“J.J. is very active,” Muschamp said. “He’s really active on blocks, creates a lot of issues for you. He’s got good length, he’s got good athleticism, change of direction. He’s going to be a really good football player.”
Muschamp also singled out freshmen defensive linemen Josh Belk and Ricky Sandidge as well as linebacker Ernest Jones, who had a fumble recovery. Defensive backs Israel Mukuamu and R.J. Roderick also had solid games with both forcing fumbles.
“They have played a lot of football for us,” Muschamp said of the freshmen defenders. “There have been some growing pains, but we will benefit from it.”
“They were really confident in what they had to do,” defensive captain T.J. Brunson said. “There were still little blips here and there that we have to clean up … [but] those quality reps and that experience will bring them a lot further along.”
Bentley said the defensive performance should help the games as they begin preparations for their bowl game.
“How we played today gave our defense tremendous confidence and momentum going into the bowl game,” he said. “I think offensively, it maybe woke us up a little bit. We still have a lot of work to do.”