Gamecocks Defense Saves the Day With Takeaways


There were times during South Carolina’s 17-13 season opening win over UNC that I’m sure I said the same thing that many Gamecocks fans said, “Here we go again”.  The high powered and fast paced North Carolina offense racked up over 270+ yards in the first half, with poor tackling and wide open receivers occurring much too frequently.  Take away Skai Moore’s 1st quarter interception in the end zone and things could have been much different going in to halftime.

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When big defensive tackle Kelsey Griffin beat his man at the line and got to the QB for a sack that forced UNC to kick a FG late in the half, you could almost feel the tide turn for the Gamecock defense.  Sometimes it just takes one player making a play to build momentum for the whole team, and that is just what the first sack of the season did for USC.  Even after giving up multiple big plays and lots of yards, new defensive coordinator John Hoke’s bunch had only allowed 13 points.

The Gamecocks defense continued to build momentum as the second half began, stopping North Carolina short on a 4th down attempt on their first drive, forcing a punt on the next, and later getting an interception from safety Jordan Diggs to stop another drive.   Unfortunately the offense couldn’t capitalize, but that didn’t deter the effort and aggression of the defense in garnet.

Once Coach Hoke and his staff made a few adjustments, gone were the wide open receivers in blue and for the first time since 2013 the opposing QB was actually made to look uncomfortable at times.  I was concerned in the first half when it seemed that we were giving to too much cushion and allowing easy completions especially on the all important 3rd downs. After the break though, the coverage was much tighter, and our d-line began to affect the pocket.

It may have taken them a half to get acclimated, but the newcomers to the defense made their presence felt throughout the second half.  Isaiah Johnson, safety that transferred from Kansas, made a huge hit early in the 3rd quarter to break up a pass.  Impressive not only in the ferocity of the hit, but in how text book it was made technique-wise.  In a time where safeties have to be increasingly careful not to pick up a targeting penalty when trying to separate the ball form a receiver, Johnson led with his shoulder, hit the target area of the opponent, and avoided contact with the helmet.  He recovered from an early late hit penalty to play solid as USC’s last line of defense in the secondary.

Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer were brought in to help along the defensive front, and as the game wore on, they both began to make their impact.  Sawyer made a couple of stops in the run game, and got a huge sack late in the 4th on a third down when UNC was trying to take the lead. Lewis got off to a slow start, but despite not having a sack he was still able to effectively pressure the QB, even chasing Marquise Williams into the waiting arms of Sawyer for his sack.  Qua Lewis was also the one who collapsed that offensive line and stood up North Carolina’s signal caller on the aforementioned 4th down on their opening drive of the 2nd half.

While some of the new guys had their moments on Thursday, it was Skai Moore’s night.  The junior linebacker showed early and often why he has led the team in tackles each of his first two years in Columbia.  He was everywhere during the game, proving himself as USC’s best player on that side of the ball by being their most capable tackler and the biggest play-maker.

He missed one tackle on a big run in the second half, but otherwise played a near flawless game.  Not only did he make plenty of stops on the opposing ball carriers, but he had the two biggest plays of the night by collecting two interceptions in the end zone to thwart North Carolina scoring threats.  He now has 9 career interceptions, which is a very big number for a linebacker.

Overall, it was a solid night for the revamped Carolina defense, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.  While many may say the boys in sky blue are just a middle of the road ACC team, they returned 10 starters from a offense that broke multiple school records a season ago.  The Gamecock defense held them in check for the most part, pitching a shutout after halftime.  The missed tackles and open receivers that led to big yardage totals for UNC mean that there is still a ways to go, but John Hoke’s unit was able to make big plays when they were needed the most.

On the night, the defense clad in garnet had 4 sacks, grabbed 3 interceptions, and showed a fight and determination that Gamecock fans are used to seeing.  For a team that allowed yards and points at a record pace last season, holding its first opponent of 2015 to 13 points and getting off to a 1-0 start is definitely a step in the right direction.

Next: Five Key Plays Against North Carolina

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