Good, Better, Best – Gamecock Defense
One shutout game against a team expected to finish near the bottom of a mid-major football league like the ACC does not a season make. South Carolina strong safety Emmanuel Cook made it clear this week that that is exactly the defensive unit's goal each and every game – a shutout.
"Every time we're shooting for zero," he said. "We don't want anybody to score on us. We're gonna hold them. If our offense can't score we're gonna hold them to zero, all the way to the end."
Gamecock defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows that holding an SEC schedule of opponents scoreless all season is not realistic, but he is happy with the mindset of his players.
"For the most part, with the things that we've been really been harping, trying to emphasize, I think the kids are buying into it. It looks like the effort and intensity and everything is there. We have a long way to go, and it just gets harder and harder from here," he said. "Shutouts are obviously a lot of fun, and it's a great accomplishment, but there are a lot of things we could have done a lot better. It's a good start. I don't want any of our players to see anything I said and take anything negative from it, because I'm very proud of the way they've worked. I'm very proud of how hard they've tried to play. They came in with a great attitude. When we review the film we'll be working on things to get better fundamentally, to get better at the things we didn't do well. We'll continue to be a good football team, if we all try to do and accomplish something, because we've had a shutout. You can get fooled by statistics and things like that, so it's important how we handle this."
Johnson talked about striking a balance in the message his players are receiving from him and his staff: "A win is a win, and we're happy to get them. They're not easy to come by. Anytime you play college football if you win a ball game you need to be happy. But, they know we didn't make some plays we could have made and that's where players – Players know when they've made an interception when they could have made a tackle when they misread something on the run. There'll be plenty of things to correct for (Vanderbilt.) Obviously, we have a chance to be pretty good, but we've got a lot of work to do."
The Gamecock defense limited the Wolfpack running game to only 89 net rushing yards. Their rushing game was expected to be the greatest challenge for Carolina coming into the game, and the stalwart effort against the run was a statement the USC defenders wanted to make. They sent a clear signal for this game that their woes against the rush that were an integral part of the five game slide that ended the 2007 season was just that – something that happened last season.
The Carolina secondary as expected continued their stingy ways, limiting the woeful Pack pass attack to only 49 net yards and five completions for the entire game. The overall defensive effort meant that the Wolfpack never made it to the Carolina red zone once in the entire game. The Gamecocks limited the Wolfpack to only four third down conversions on 14 attempts, forcing the Pack to punt six times in the game. The turnovers they forced were probably the most important statistic of the game, forcing the Pack to fumble three times, losing two, and intercepting them twice.
Cook was the leading tackler in the game with eight tackles, and he was excited about all the turnovers caused. "Oh, yes, definitely. Turnovers, that's how you win the game. Everybody pursuing to the ball, picking up fumbles, hitting people, everybody running to the ball, that's how we're supposed to play."
Johnson said, "Turnovers and scoring on defense is something that you have to do if you're going to have a change for good programs. So, I hope we can find a way to keep doing that."
Eric Norwood recovered one of the fumbles at the State 12 yard line near the end of the first half, then forced the passer to hurry on State's first drive of the second half, and Carlos Thomas intercepted the ball and returned it to the NCSU nine yard line. Those two plays were cited by NC State Coach Tom O'Brien as the key plays of the game. South Carolina cashed in on the first turnover with a field goal, the only points scored in the first half by either team, and USC scored its first touchdown after the Thomas interception.
Norwood said "I don't think you can give an "A" or a "B" to a thing like that, but I think that overall we flew to the ball, and we got on all those loose fumbles. I think that's the main thing. We've just got to do that every game."
The Vanderbilt offense will present a much stronger challenge for the USC "D." They defeated Miami of Ohio 34-13 on Thursday, and Commodore Chris Nickson is a dual threat quarterback, the kind that gave USC so much trouble last season. He ran for over 100 yards and passed for another 91 yards and a touchdown.
Ellis Johnson discussed the Vandy attack immediately after the win over NC State.
"Vanderbilt has a better offensive football team. I don't know if they'll be any more physical, but they'll be a better offensive football team. They've got experienced quarterbacks. They've got two quarterbacks who started at least half a football season, and they'll have an attack that has some elements in it that we didn't have to deal with tonight, more options, a little bit more throwing the ball down field. So, I think they'll be a tough opponent and we'll have to improve on some things we did tonight in order to make sure that we play well next week."
Steve Spurrier in his weekly press conference continued to praise Johnson and the effort of his defensive charges in the State game, but acknowledged the Vandy game would be a stiffer challenge.
"Our defense will be tested by the quarterback run, like we were last year," Spurrier said. "Hopefully we've made improvements, I hope we have. (Nickson) ran around very well [last week]. He's a good runner, and he made some scramble plays. We'll try to make him a thrower and not let him run around too much. They only attempted 16 throws the other night, so they did most of their damage running the ball."
The loss to Vandy last season started the five game losing streak, and the Gamecock defenders haven't forgotten it. Cook said, "We're not going to come into Vanderbilt game with a big head, ‘cause we lost to Vandy last year. We're going to come out here ready to get a little redemption. We're ready to play hard, ready to go at them."
The loss of key defensive players like Jasper Brinkley and Nathan Pepper were major contributors in last year's losses, and Cook feels that Johnson has the team ready even if someone gets injured this year: "Coach Johnson, I believe he's preparing everybody, so if somebody goes down there's somebody to back him up. We've got players like Chris Hail in the secondary. He's ready to come out there and step up if I go down. Jasper, if he goes down we've got other players coming up to step up and be able to make those tackles."
Cook said he is seeing much more depth on this year's team than last year's team. "Definitely. We've got a lot of ball players on this defense and offense, so I feel we're going to go along way."
Johnson said the staff knows they have some potential with this group.
"We're more experienced, and we've got some depth. We've got a lot of things going for us, and again if we can continue to buy into the fact that we've got to go back to the drawing board and work hard on the fundamentals and keep trying to get better, then we'll have a good stretch."
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