Spurrier, Gamecocks Lean on Defense

FAYETTEVILLE — Steve Spurrier changed the landscape of the Southeastern Conference with his high-powered offense at Florida in the 1990s.

But this season, with his offense struggling, the fourth-year South Carolina coach has been showing his appreciation for the other side of the ball.

"We're proud of how our defensive guys are playing," Spurrier said Sunday.

The Gamecocks enter Saturday's game against the Razorbacks leaning on a stingy group that is among the nation's best. South Carolina is first in the SEC in total defense (250.7 yards a game) and third in scoring (15 points). It ranks third and 12th, respectively, in the nation in each category.

Their latest effort was one of the season's best and helped South Carolina grab its most lopsided win against Tennessee in school history.

The Gamecocks held the Volunteers to 204 yards (34 rushing), collected six sacks and forced three turnovers in the 27-6 win. They even scored a touchdown of their own on Stoney Woodson's 68-yard interception return for a touchdown.

"That big-time defense put it to them," Gamecocks receiver Kenny McKinley told the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier. "It might not have been just (Tennessee) playing bad. I'm teammates with those (defensive) guys and I'm still amazed by them."

It has been a drastic change from last season, when South Carolina's woeful defense proved to be the reason it didn't play in a bowl game.

The worst performance came on a memorable night for the Razorbacks. Arkansas ran for 541 yards — including Darren McFadden's 321, which tied the SEC's single-game rushing record — in a 48-36 win in Fayetteville last November.

Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix left for Ole Miss after the season and the attitude has changed under Ellis Johnson. The first-year coordinator, who was briefly part of Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino's staff, has toughened a group led by strong safety Emanuel Cook and linebacker Eric Norwood.

"I like what one of our defensive players said (after the Tennessee game)," Spurrier said Sunday. "We realize our offense is struggling and defense, we know we need to step up and shut them down.

"That's the attitude good teams have."

It has altered Spurrier's offensive plans, too.

The Gamecocks, who built a 24-0 lead against Tennessee, ran the ball 44 times Saturday. South Carolina didn't have much success on the ground — 2.3 yards a carry — but Spurrier said there was no need to do anything risky with the defense in control. The Gamecocks threw 20 passes.

"You eliminate how many possessions they have and if you can make some first downs it keeps the clock churning," Spurrier said. "You take any suspense out of winning and losing."

Of course, Spurrier isn't happy where his team is offensively and is pushing for improvement.

The Gamecocks — who have shuffled between quarterbacks Stephen Garcia and Chris Smelley — are sixth in the SEC in scoring (22.9 points) and seventh in total yards (330.4). The Achilles' heel has been the run game, which is last in the SEC and 108th in the nation (100.3 yards a game).

"We've not played very well lately," Spurrier said Sunday. "I'll be the first to admit to that. We're not happy with the offense, but we are where we are."

And Spurrier won't have any trouble leaning on his defense if South Carolina continues to win.

"Whatever it takes to win the game is more important than running up offensive stats," Spurrier said. "I'm in charge of wins and losses and that's the priority."

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