Three redshirt or true freshman record interceptions against Bulldogs
Saturday’s 34-16 win over Mississippi State was a breakout defensive performance in terms of turnovers, as the Gamecocks forced five of them on the day against the Bulldogs.
The five turnovers were the highest in a game this season for South Carolina and they proved to be crucial in a game in which the offense struggled to move the ball consistently.
“We were due. We haven’t had a lot of turnovers this season,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “So I think as you get better on defense and guys understand what they’re doing, we play faster. And when you play faster, you can be more physical.”
The young players on the defense made a statement, with each of Gamecocks’ three interceptions coming from redshirts or true freshmen.
The Bulldogs scored on their opening drive to make it 7-0, but on their third drive, true freshman Skai Moore hauled in South Carolina’s first interception of the day. Redshirt junior cornerback Victor Hampton deflected MSU quarterback Dak Prescott’s pass and Moore dove under it to make the play.
At the beginning of the second quarter, with the Gamecocks leading 14-7, redshirt freshman T.J. Holloman picked off a screen pass to set up the offense in opposing territory.
South Carolina only managed a field goal, and after the Bulldogs added a field goal of their own, the score was 17-10 at halftime. The second half is when the Gamecock defense helped bring the game home for South Carolina.
Sophomore kicker Landon Ard mishit the opening second-half kickoff and left the Bulldogs in good field position near midfield. But on the second play of the drive, senior defensive end Chaz Sutton stuffed Prescott at the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble that was recovered by redshirt junior Sharrod Golightly. Golightly brought it to the Mississippi State 23-yard line and from there, the Gamecocks added a touchdown.
Midway through the third quarter, South Carolina earned its fourth turnover when redshirt freshman Chaz Elder intercepted Prescott after he was hit in the process of throwing.
Elder’s interception effectively sealed the win, but the Gamecocks’ final turnover came near the end of the contest when Hampton stole the ball out of junior receiver Robert Johnson’s hands for a fumble recovery.
After the game, Ward acknowledged the strong play of Hampton and Golightly, saying they both prepared well for the Bulldogs. Hampton finished with eight total tackles, the forced fumble and subsequent recovery, as well as three pass break-ups. Golightly collected four total tackles with two for a loss and the fumble recovery.
After Prescott gashed the Gamecocks in the running game on the opening drive of the day, South Carolina settled down and limited the big play opportunities.
“After they scored, we all just came to the sideline and guys like Vic (Hampton) and Brison (Williams), they were really talking to us and just motivating us to let us know that can’t happen again,” Moore said. “We went out of there and made those adjustments. It was more so, like, mentally than anything else.”
Moore helped represent a group of true and redshirt freshmen that Ward said has improved steadily throughout the season.
“I think it’s the knowledge of the game and what we’re doing,” Ward said. “We’re not doing hard things; we might throw in a wrinkle here and there, week to week, and they’ve just adjusted.”
Junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney also said he was impressed with how the young defensive players have performed.
Turnovers proved to be critical in a game that saw Mississippi State outgain South Carolina on offense. The big plays on defense lifted the mood in the Gamecock camp to the point where sophomore running back Mike Davis even played reporter after the game, asking his defensive teammates how it felt to hold the Bulldogs to just 16 points.
“A little bit closer to Atlanta,” Golightly replied. “Just a little bit closer.”