Defense leads Gamecocks to win

South Carolina has earned a reputation in recent years as one of the nation's premier defenses. The defense came up huge in Thursday's 17-13 win over Vanderbilt, flying around and making plays. When the game was on the line, it was the Carolina defense that kept the Gamecocks in front.

It was business as usual for the South Carolina defense.

The Carolina defense held strong in the midst of offensive woes to keep the Gamecocks within striking distance, and then when the offense got just enough going to get the lead it was the defense that sealed the deal in a 17-13 win over Vanderbilt in the season-opener for both teams Thursday night in Nashville.

"We played hard, but we had three bad plays," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "That's something we have to correct. They had two big pass plays that shouldn't have been big pass plays."

The offense put the defense in a rough spot very early. On the first offensive play of the game running back Marcus Lattimore fumbled and Vandy recovered on the Gamecock 44-yard line. Carolina's defense bailed them out with a three-and-out, finished off with a Jadeveon Clowney sack.

Two plays later Connor Shaw was intercepted by Kenny Ladler, who returned it all the way to the Carolina 21-yard line. Vanderbilt would take the ball inside the 10-yard line, but Shaq Wilson would come up with a big play.

"It's great discipline by a senior," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "We played man-to-man in the red zone because they had shown a tendency to run the football a lot down there. We were going to load the box and play man-to-man on the outside. We played ‘goal' coverage and he had the (running) back in coverage, and he was disciplined in taking care of his responsibilities and that's what you expect from a senior."

Vanderbilt ran a backside screen to Zac Stacy, but Wilson stayed home and outjumped Stacy for the interception and returned it 37 yards.

Carolina would score two plays later and would build a 10-0 lead before the defense made a critical mistake. Linebacker Quin Smith hesitated briefly on the play-action as Jordan Rodgers was able to sail it over his head to Jordan Matthews, but that wasn't the biggest mistake on the play. Safety Brison Williams inexplicably jumped as if the ball was going to go right through Matthews and into his hands. Of course it didn't and Williams whiffed in an attempt to grab Matthews as he ran by. Matthews took it 78 yards for the touchdown to get the Commodores on the board.

"We teach our DB's to never jump for a ball when you're behind the receiver," Ward said.

The Carolina secondary would make its second critical mistake on the next Vandy drive. Rodgers scrambled to his right, throwing across his body to Josh Grady. D.J. Swearinger had a bead on it to pick it off, but mistimed his jump and the ball drifted right over his head and into Grady's arm for 32 yards to set up a game-tying field goal.

"We played well over-all," Spurrier said. "We had that one mishap where our safety missed the tackle and the guy went all the way. Other than that, the jumpball that D.J. misjudged, they got a field goal after that. If they hold somebody to 13 and get a turnover inside the 10-yard line that we got on Shaq's play, that's pretty doggone good."

Other than those two miscues the defense was dominant. Despite three-and-outs on the first three possessions of the third quarter from the Carolina offense and being on the field for all but 6:05 in the quarter, the defense allowed just one field goal as the Gamecocks trailed 13-10 entering the fourth.

The offense would finally come through on that drive as the Gamecocks took a 17-13 lead after Lattimore scored from a yard out.

A 52-yard return on the ensuing kickoff gave the Commodores the ball back just inside Carolina territory. As the defense has done so many times in recent years, they came through with a three-and-out after a big sack from Kelcy Quarles on third down.

The defense would have to hold one more time to earn the win as Vandy took over with 5:08 left in the game. Rodgers would scramble for 15 yards on the first play to move the ball to the 35, but Chaz Sutton would get a sack on Rodgers later in the drive to force a third-and-long. On fourth-and-seven, Ward's aggressiveness would nearly cost the Gamecocks dearly. Freshman head-hunter T.J. Gurley came through on an all-out blitz to hit Rodgers, but Rodgers was able to get the pass off downfield for Matthews.

"That last one when the Vandy kid had a chance to catch it, I'm not sure Coach Ward called the right defense there," Spurrier said. "We had a little conversation after that one. ‘Zero' blitz on fourth-and-seven. If it works it's a good call though."

Matthews had beaten Swearinger on the play, and as college players are taught, when you get beat do everything you can to keep the receiver from getting the ball. Even if it means interfering. Swearinger grabbed the left arm of Matthews to prevent him from making the catch. Worst-case scenario it is first-and-ten for Vandy at the Carolina 47-yard line. Vandy had one drive of more than 43 yards and that was the 78-yard touchdown pass earlier in the game.

With Carolina's defense limiting the Vanderbilt offense to just 66 yards on 27 plays in the entire half, it is very hard to believe they would go 47 yards in just 1:47 seconds despite having all three timeouts. Swearinger knew his defense had shut down the Vandy offense all half and a Matthews catch could have gone the distance, so he did what he had to do. Fortunately for him and Carolina a flag wasn't thrown and the game was virtually over.

"I respect the boss and he's probably correct," Ward laughed. "But I want our guys to know that we're going to be aggressive. I wasn't going to sit back there and let them have an opportunity to scramble and make some plays like they had done, so we called a ‘zero blitz.' I respect the boss and I understand what he's talking about."

Chalk it up as a learning experience for Ward; an experience that didn't cost his team the game.

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