Photo: Simeon Roberts

Gamecocks defense bends but doesn't break against Commodores

The South Carolina football team's defense is known for making big plays, getting stops and not letting teams into the end zone. 

In their 34-27 win on Saturday, the defense allowed Vanderbilt's offense to enter the red zone multiple times, but were able to stifle it on the final drive.

Since the 2016 season, South Carolina defense's speed, strength and strategy have all improved. Both the Gamecocks and the Commodores were coming off a bye week headed into Saturday’s matchup. The Gamecocks were looking to become bowl eligible and remain relevant in the SEC East race, while Vanderbilt looked to turn its season around and finish strong down the stretch. 

Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who weighs in at 6-foot-4 and 227 pounds, entered the game with 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions on the season. Shurmur was able to throw the ball with ease, picking apart the Gamecocks secondary as the game went on. This is partly because the Gamecocks' front four struggled to apply pressure. Defensive linemen Dante Sawyer and D.J. Wonnum, who have excelled in league competition this season, had a hard time getting through Vanderbilt's offensive line. 

The Gamecocks defense gave up the most yards through the air since playing NC State in the first game of the season. Shurmur completed more than 50 percent of his passes for a season-high 333 yards and four touchdowns. This was the first time the Gamecocks defense had been torched for a significant number of yards in weeks. Even though they gave up a bunch of yards, the secondary still played well enough to get the win. 

South Carolina defensive back Rashad Fenton had a season-high four pass break ups, and the team totaled 10 pass break ups. The secondary was relied on heavily throughout the game to make Shurmur think quick and force throws. Chris Lammons also had a career-high 10 tackles (eight solo) in Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt.  

When asked what was different about this week compared to last week, Steven Montac said, “I don’t know ... I mean, we could’ve did better down the field attacking the ball, but I mean, we got a 'W', we straight.” 

Montac was also confident in the defense to seal the win on the opponent's final drive. Back-to-back games with this situation have been the case for the Gamecocks defense.

Although Shurmur was the biggest producer for the Commodores, the Gamecock defense succeeded in containing running back Ralph Webb. Webb came into the game as one of the best Vanderbilt rushers in school history. He is a big back, with a low center of gravity and strong legs, which aids him in getting as many yards as he can fight for. Webb only rushed six times for 31 yards and did not score a touchdown against the Gamecocks. He didn’t get nearly the same amount of touches as he usually does, because Vanderbilt was playing from behind for the majority of the game. 

The Gamecocks did their part to force Shurmur to try and beat them through the air, rather than letting Webb run all over them. Even Shurmur encountered problems, throwing an interception to Montac in the second quarter. While the defense gave up 440 total yards, it made the stops at the end of the game when it needed it most. 

The team recorded zero sacks as a group, but Vanderbilt has only allowed 10 sacks all season. While the pressure may not have been as prevalent this week compared to previous weeks, the Gamecocks defense played well enough to beat a Vanderbilt team looking to salvage its season. 

Looking ahead to next week, the Gamecocks defense will have to do much of the same to have a chance against an undefeated Georgia team. Georgia has two of the premier running backs in the conference in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Both backs are very capable of breaking a game wide open. It will be key for the Gamecocks to focus on eliminating the run game and forcing quarterback Jake Fromm to beat them through the air. 

Head coach Will Muschamp and his team are aware of the importance of next Saturday's game.

“No doubt they understand ... it’s a big ball game,” said Muschamp, who isn’t going to prepare the team any differently this week.



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