COLUMBIA — It’s still early in the season and South Carolina has played two overmatched Conference USA opponents in its three games, but at this point the Gamecocks rate as one of the nation’s best red-zone defensive teams.
Opponents have made six trips inside USC’s 20-yard line and have come away with just three field goals. USC’s red zone scoring percentage allowed (50) is tied for fifth nationally. The Gamecocks beat their last two foes — East Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham — by a combined score of 97-16.
The Gamecocks are one of just four teams in the country that has yet to allow a red-zone touchdown, along with Florida State, Texas Christian and Oklahoma, though the latter two have played just two games, rather than three for USC and FSU.
Last season, USC ranked No. 58 nationally in opponent red-zone scoring percentage (80.95), but No. 11 in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage (47.62). Opponents made 42 trips inside USC’s red zone and scored 20 touchdowns and 14 field goals.
In Saturday night’s 49-6 win over UAB, the Gamecocks allowed just one field goal in three red zone trips by the Blazers, but UAB did go for it on fourth down twice in the third quarter because it desperately needed to score touchdowns.
“The red zone defense we played was outstanding, obviously,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “But that’s sort of what we expect from our guys. We think we should be that kind of defense most of the time.”
Said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward: “That’s stuff that we talk about. We want to protect our home, and when we get into the red zone, we definitely want to try to raise our level of play. I thought the guys did that. If we can keep people out of the end zone, we’ll have a chance to win a lot of football games.”
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had his best statistical game of the season against UAB — 3˝ tackles for loss, including two sacks, and seven total tackles. For that performance, he was named the Southeastern Conference’s defensive lineman of the week Monday.
“I think Jadeveon played well the first two ball games,” Ward said, echoing his sentiments from last week. “He didn’t have a lot of stats or get sacks, but I think he’s been very disruptive. He definitely played well (against UAB).”
In three games, Clowney now has 13 tackles (eight solo), including 5˝ tackles for loss and three sacks. He leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks and also has two quarterback hurries.
USC’s Sept. 29 game at Kentucky will kick off at 7 p.m. and air on ESPN or ESPN2, the SEC announced Monday.
USC has won 11 of its past 12 games against Kentucky. The exception: 2010, when Kentucky won, 31-28, in Lexington (USC’s last trip there), the week after the Gamecocks upset No. 1 Alabama, 35-21, in Columbia.
Last season, USC beat Kentucky, 54-3, in Columbia and gained 639 yards. It was Connor Shaw’s first game as USC’s full-time starting quarterback.
Kentucky (1-2) travels to Florida this week for its SEC opener. The Wildcats are 12-16 (4-12 SEC) under third-year coach Joker Phillips, whose seat probably got hotter after last week’s 32-31 overtime home loss to Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are in just their fourth year as a full-fledged Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) member. They went 2-10 in 2010.