Defense is focused heading into SC State game
Despite giving up 41 points to Georgia, the defense bounced back nicely in the conference win over Ole Miss last week, only allowing 248 total yards. Facing off against Mississippi quarterback Jevan Snead, who was considered by some to be a Heisman candidate, USC played its best game of the season, limiting him to only 107 yards passing.
Two of the most important players on this year's defense include defensive tackle Nathan Pepper and free safety Chris Culliver, who addressed the media at South Carolina's Tuesday press conference. Both players talked about the continued improvement of the defense, and how they will look to continue that improvement this weekend.
In their first SEC game of the season against Georgia, the defense was largely unable to stop the Bulldog attack, yielding 308 yards. However, Pepper said that he saw the unit taking a large step in the right direction in their last game out against Ole Miss.
"When we played against Georgia, I kind of think we took a step back because we didn't stop them as much as I thought we could," said Pepper. "This past game I think our defense was the best it's been all year. Especially on third downs, I think we were the best we've been since I got here."
After giving up 5-of-9 on third down conversions against Georgia, the USC defense only surrendered an excellent 1-of-13 on third down against the supposedly high-flying Rebel attack. In his postgame comments after Ole Miss, strong safety Darian Stewart said that a big reason for the success on third down was the relentless pressure applied by the South Carolina front four.
However, safety Chris Culliver has also seen a great deal of improvement in the secondary between the Gamecocks' first two SEC games. The biggest thing he credits this to? Effort.
"Going harder, just looking at more film, looking at everything we did wrong and trying to correct that," stated Culliver. "In the Ole Miss game we had a lot of effort, which caused a lot of missed assignments and stuff like that, that went down just because we had more effort."
Effort is certainly something that will have to be high this week in order to defeat a very talented SC State squad. The coaches and players have continued to stress this week that they are not taking this game lightly at all, and that the undefeated Bulldogs have many SEC-caliber athletes on their roster.
"Mentally this is a game we have to go into like we're playing a top-five team," Pepper observed. "We want to go into it and try to take advantage and try to perfect every part of the game, make it a little better than we were last week. Last week we had some penalties and things go wrong for us, and we're just trying to stay away from that and play better as a team. Tackle better, cut down on our missed assignments, and just try to be perfect."
With the team facing a possible 4-1 start as they move further into SEC play, some fans are concerned this team will fall victim to the plague of late-season collapses that have haunted the Gamecocks in recent years. The 2007 Gamecocks began the season 6-1 before falling apart and finishing with a 5-game losing streak. According to Culliver and Pepper, this team and the defense are better prepared to handle both success and adversity this year.
"I feel like we have (gotten ready to manage success)," said Culliver. "We've got a lot of good leaders on this team, and they're helping us out with everything."
Pepper echoed the sentiment, claiming that this is a new year, and the team has a chance to realize new dreams.
"I just feel like our team is in a different position," proclaimed Pepper. "It doesn't feel the same as a team as it did that year when we started out really fast. It just feels like we've got a better hold on what's going on right now."
Even with a good start, the Gamecocks know that to truly realize a "New Carolina," they must continue their good play throughout the season. Another late-season collapse would do nothing to reassure the fan base and the players that they are truly changing the culture at South Carolina.
"I definitely feel it," Pepper said. "I've been here since 2005 and definitely something has changed. We've got guys taking ownership over the workouts. If you miss something, come on in and get your work done. It's pretty much how I feel. That's what the difference is."
This Saturday night against the in-state Bulldogs from Orangeburg, the Gamecocks will have another chance to prove that they are a team to be taken seriously in the rough world of SEC football. Only time will tell if the "New Carolina" can weather the storm that is an entire football season.
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