Game­cocks start­ing to click on de­fense

Starkville Daily News - - SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE FOOTBALL - By PETE IACOBELLI As­so­ci­ated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina's de­fense is mak­ing its mark at the right time, forc­ing turnovers and stuff­ing op­po­nents to be the driv­ing force in the Game­cocks' sur­pris­ing start.

South Carolina (4-2, 2-2 South­east­ern Conference) forced four turnovers last week, in­clud­ing three it re­turned for touch­downs in a 48-22 blowout of Arkansas last week. The Game­cocks have cut down on yardage al­lowed and points given up from a year ago and lead the SEC with 13 turnovers.

"We just love the ball," Game­cocks de­fen­sive end Dante Sawyer said Tues­day.

That was not al­ways the case a year ago in coach Will Muschamp's first sea­son. South Carolina's de­fense looked slow and gen­er­ally a step be­hind op­po­nents much of the year, in­fu­ri­at­ing Muschamp at times with their in­abil­ity to keep op­po­nents out of the end zone.

In the sea­son fi­nale, a 56-7 loss at Clem­son, Muschamp grit­ted his teeth in the postgame when asked how to fix the Game­cocks. "Go to work," he said.

South Carolina has taken that to heart. The Game­cocks are 11th na­tion­ally with 13 turnovers forced with seven in­ter­cep­tions and six fum­bles. They'll take that ball-hawk­ing ap­proach into Ten­nessee (3-2, 0-2) on Satur­day.

Line­backer Skai Moore be­gan the de­fen­sive touch­down bar­rage against Arkansas with a 34-yard in­ter­cep­tion re­turn to put the Game­cocks up 2710. Mo­ments later, Stephen Mon­tac took an ap­par­ent fum­ble 38 yards for an­other touch­down, but that got over­turned on re­view.

"I told the ref he could've let me score," Mon­tac said with a smile.

The Game­cocks did not let the re­ver­sal set them back as line­backer T.J. Brun­son pounced on a loose ball a few plays later and went 73 yards for a touch­down.

The de­fen­sive scor­ing ended with Keisean Nixon's 45-yard pick six in the fourth quar­ter. The three de­fen­sive scores a South Carolina record and one shy of the NCAA mark ac­com­plished sev­eral times, in­clud­ing by Auburn and Florida.

Muschamp said turnovers come with ef­fort and iden­ti­fy­ing vul­ner­a­ble of­fen­sive play­ers not pro­tect­ing the ball the way they should that may be ripe for cough­ing one up.

"It is so im­por­tant to be a ball hawk de­fen­sively," Muschamp said "And our de­fen­sive staff does a good job of em­pha­siz­ing that."

South Carolina quar­ter­back Jake Bent­ley said his de­fense does the same thing to him and the of­fense dur­ing prac­tice.

"I just like to say that they know our plays at prac­tice," Bent­ley said. "That's my ex­cuse."

Game­cocks de­fend­ers are con­stantly look­ing to dis­lodge the ball dur­ing drills, jump­ing pass routes and get­ting into the end zone, Bent­ley said. Their ef­forts help South Carolina's of­fense bet­ter pre­pare to se­cure the ball.

"It's ex­cit­ing to see them get after the ball and cre­ate turnovers for us," he said.

Ten­nessee of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Larry Scott re­called Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers coach Jon Gru­den telling his de­fense if they thought they were so good, "Why don't you score some touch­downs?"

Scott, the former Mi­ami head coach, be­lieves Muschamp has in­stilled that same phi­los­o­phy on the Game­cocks.

"They feel like they can score points, make plays and do those things," Scott said. "They're play­ing with a lot of en­ergy."

Moore, who missed last year be­cause of neck fu­sion surgery, was frus­trated at times last year watch­ing from the side­lines be­cause the Game­cocks were so close to mak­ing the plays they make each week this sea­son. "I knew that if we worked hard in the off­sea­son, things would turn it around," he said.

(Photo by Sean Ray­ford, AP file)

Arkansas run­ning back Devwah Wha­ley (21) is stuffed by the South Carolina de­fense.

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