Thin USC Defense Preps for Ole Miss Challenge

Ellis Johnson has held his USC defense together with band-aids, shifting schemes and lots of prayer the first three games of the 2009 season, as he has had to deal with personnel shortages due to injuries, suspensions, and ill-advised early defections to the NFL. Johnson and his players talk about the #4 Ole Miss Rebels, who come to town averaging 48.5 points a game and 424.5 yards per game.

The Ole Miss Rebels will come into town riding high on Thursday, their #4 national ranking the highest since October 1970, when they were also ranked #4. They opened the 1964 season ranked #1 in the nation. The Rebels have feasted on Memphis 45-14 and Southeastern Louisiana 52-6 in their first two games, with a bye week sandwiched in-between the two games. South Carolina will be their first SEC opponent and first real test of the season. A national audience will be watching on ESPN at 7:45 pm.

The Rebels are led by their Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Jevan Snead, who threw three touchdowns Saturday against the Lions, completing 16 of 28 passes in light duty against the lower level opponent. Running back Brandon Bolden also rushed for 105 yards in the game. The Rebels piled up 500 yards of offense Saturday, and 349 yards against Conference USA member Memphis in their opener. The biggest challenge faced thus far this season by Houston Nutt's players has been the swine flu, which sickened about a third of the team during their off week.

The Gamecock defensive players are well aware of the challenge they face with Snead and the Rebels, but they had a "taking care of business" mentality when asked about facing Jevan Snead Thursday night. Linebacker Eric Norwood said, "He's a good quarterback, but we got pressure on him last year, and I don't see why we can't do it this year."

The high ranking of the Rebels didn't faze Norwood either. When asked about the team's chances of knocking off the then #5 team in the country, Norwood replied, "Truthfully, it's just a number to me. I'm not going to harp on last year, or wins or losses, but we know what we are capable of. So we're going to go out and play ball, and play how we should play, and everything should be fine."

South Carolina struggled with turnover ratio last season, but is in the plus column in takeaways thus far this season. The USC defense forced three turnovers in the second half against the Owls, two fumbles and an interception, two of which led to touchdowns. Snead is careful with the ball, allowing multiple interceptions only three times in his career, he did get picked off twice by the Memphis defenders.

The FAU Owls tried to take advantage of freshman Stephon Gilmore Saturday and he made them pay, making his first career interception Saturday against the Owls, and also causing a fumble. Gilmore said, "It seemed like they kept coming at me. I was playing off in the first half. Then in the second half, I was trying to go up and press them. They still kept trying to go at me, so I just had to make a play on the ball. I saw the quarterback breaking out and I saw him looking down at his receiver, and I just tried to stay in one spot and make a play on the ball."

Ole Miss got a big game on defense from their freshman linebacker D.T. Shackelford, who recovered two fumbles and finished off the Rebels' scoring with a 58-yard interception return for touchdown against the Lions.

The Gamecocks may be missing one of their key defenders who had his own return for a touchdown in last year's game in Oxford against the Rebels. Senior Nathan Pepper suffered a high ankle sprain against Georgia in the Gamecocks' SEC opener and sat out the game against Florida Atlantic. Coach Ellis Johnson said Saturday night that Pepper is still doubtful for the Ole Miss game. Last year against the Rebels, Pepper recovered a fumble and raced 29 yards for a touchdown.

The biggest concern for USC to be competitive against Ole Miss is injuries. Starting linebacker Rodney Paulk was lost for the season after he suffered an ACL injury in the season opener against NC State. The undisputed leader of the defense is linebacker Eric Norwood, and the senior star was limited to around 25 snaps against FAU after suffering a shoulder bruise. He is expected to be ready to play on Thursday. Safety Darian Stewart and tackle Melvin Ingram have also been slowed by injuries.

To say the South Carolina defense has missed Ladi Ajiboye the first three games of the season would be an understatement. The anchor of the defensive line was suspended for the first three games after being arrested for marijuana use. The Gamecocks could use him coming out smoking on defense against the potent Ole Miss offense Thursday night. Assistant Head Coach Ellis Johnson drew a laugh from the media Saturday night after the FAU game when he was asked what he expected from Ajiboye upon his return. Johnson, replied, "He better start!" Ajiboye has been practicing with the scout team so Johnson said he hasn't seen much of him, and acknowledged that "I don't know that he will (start) because he's got to come back and play up to form."

Norwood said that getting Ajiboye back will help a lot. "It will help a whole lot," he said. "To have somebody as dominant as he is in the middle is definitely going to help, and it is going to make our other defensive lineman better as well."

Another defensive player returning from suspension will be cornerback CC Whitlock, who served a one game suspension for violation of team rules. Offensive lineman Kyle Nunn will also return after having been suspended for the first three games, also for violation of team rules.

Never one to hold back, Johnson was blunt in his assessment of the USC defense after the victory over the Owls. "We don't have a defensive unit right now," Johnson said. "We have a bunch of bodies and a bunch of guys trying hard. We're young in some spots, we're beat up in other spots, we're thin in some spots, and right now there is nothing you look at there right now except for effort and heart and say we can hang our hat on that. It's frustrating, because we have to cut back to almost vanilla because there are so many young players out there and so many kids out there that haven't practiced. We're not good enough physically to overcome that right now. Hopefully we'll get some of those guys back and go on from there."

The depth issue at defensive tackle caused Johnson and the Gamecocks to try a three-man front against Georgia and Florida Atlantic. The Owls success in the first half caused a shift to the more traditional four man front for the remainder of the game. It worked against the Owls, who were shut out in the second half, but Ole Miss will provide a much stiffer challenge. "We tried to run the three-man front early in the game, and that is where a lot of the cutbacks were happening," Johnson said. "That package is for mixture, it's not for base. It's not our base and it's not something we play every day. It's something we had to do to try to get through it. We went to the four man front and some of the guys did some good things," Johnson said. "It's not as stout, not as strong in there."

Johnson was candid about where his players need to make progress, especially younger players like Gilmore, who despite his highlight moments struggled at times against FAU. With the depth challenges his team was facing, his biggest emphasis after the game was how proud he was of the job the players available did against the Owls: "I was really proud with the way they came back, with every series in the second half ending up with a turnover or turnovers on downs," Johnson said. "With what we were trying to do and who we had on the field, it was going to take a magic trick."

With the short week to prepare for the Rebels, Johnson was more concerned about his team's endurance than the actual challenge Ole Miss presents. "The biggest thing right now is to try to get them back on their legs," he said. "We're going to be so tired and everything with limited numbers. We'll get a look at their schemes. We're not going to be able to do much contact. They're going to be a whole lot better than (the Owls) on both sides of the ball. Ole Miss is going to be a problem for us physically, not schematically. Can we get back and be ready to go?"

Norwood said he felt the USC defense matches up pretty well with the Ole Miss offense, saying "Oh yeah, I feel like our defense matches up well with any offense despite what has happened in these last couple of games."

Another young player who stood out Saturday was Akeem Auguste, whose play Steve Spurrier was so impressed with that he gave him the game ball. Auguste was respectful of Owls quarterback Rusty Smith, who will likely hear his name called when the next NFL draft is held. Auguste said, "He was putting it in there, he really was, but we play against a lot of great quarterbacks. We've got Jevan Snead next week, so we've got play regardless."

The game against Ole Miss will be the second Thursday night tilt this season for the Gamecocks. They opened the season against the NC State Wolfpack on a Thursday as well. Asked if he likes playing the Thursday night games, Auguste said "It just means everybody in the nation is watching you, and I love it." The Gamecocks came just short of making a name for themselves nationally when they lost to Georgia. The opportunity is there to do it again against Ole Miss, but the defense is going to have a stellar game for the team to pull it off.

Gamecock Anthem Top Stories