SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Swearinger rescues suspect pass defense for No. 12 South Carolina
COLUMBIA — A couple of questions nagged at Williams-Brice Stadium early in the third quarter Saturday:
What about the suddenly suspect South Carolina pass defense?
What's up with that uncharacteristically quiet student section?
D.J. Swearinger with a timely catch, joyful 69-yard run and impressive throw into the stands answered both during the Gamecocks' 38-20 victory over Arkansas. The senior defensive back intercepted a pass thrown by NFL prospect Tyler Wilson and returned it for a crushing touchdown.
“I've always played, since I was little, to be a game-changer,” Swearinger said. “That was a game-changing play.”
He fired the ball above a roaring group of approving fellow students.
“It was sort of a stress-reliever from the penalties,” Swearinger explained. “That was just having fun.”
Swearinger's touchdown put No. 12 South Carolina ahead, 31-10, and certified a bunch of strategic and personnel adjustments made by defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.
Unsportsmanlike conduct shouldn't be encouraged, and Swearinger had three on the same Razorbacks drive — a horse-collar tackle and a questionable helmet-leading hit before hitting the end zone trifecta.
But please excuse him for the celebration penalty. The 15-yards assessed on the kickoff were worth progress made since South Carolina's shoddy pass defense in a 38-35 win over Tennessee two weeks ago.
“We could have played better,” Ward said. “We left some plays out there. But I'm proud of the way we played.”
Cutting the passing damage from 381 yards and five touchdowns vs. Tyler Bray and Tennessee to 277 and two touchdowns against Arkansas was important. A trip to pass-happy Clemson is two weeks away.
Ward scrambled his secondary during the bye week.
Swearinger moved from free safety to nickelback and also played some cornerback.
Brison Williams moved from strong safety to free safety.
DeVonte Holloman moved from spur (outside linebacker) to strong safety.
Jimmy Legree went from starting cornerback to the bench, but only for the first play; he saw lots of action against Arkansas' multi-receiver sets.
The Gamecocks got four sacks, forced a fumble and Akeem Auguste also had an interception.
The biggest adjustment was an emphasis on zone defense. Ward says it's ideal strategy for an offense designed by former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino to baffle man-to-man coverage.
Petrino's brother, Paul Petrino, remains Razorbacks offensive coordinator.
“I don't understand why we didn't play more zone against Arkansas in the past,” said Ward, named defensive coordinator last December after Ellis Johnson left to become head coach at Southern Miss.
South Carolina also made smart changes within Saturday's game. Arkansas converted on its first third down and went 3 for 12 after that. Wilson's last touchdown pass was a garbage-time score with 39 seconds left.
Of course, the most effective pass defense is Jadeveon Clowney, the best pass rusher in college football.
“Coach,” Clowney complained. “They're blocking me with five guys.”
“Good,” Ward said, pointing out that meant other Gamecocks had a free path to Wilson.
Clowney started out rushing from the outside but moved to defensive tackle when Arkansas double-teamed him with a tight end. Ward quickly saw the Razorbacks were ready for that, sliding their protection with shouts of “Clowney left!” or “Clowney right!”
“You're not going to get one-on-one blocking until you get to the NFL,” Ward told Clowney.
The post-Tennessee plan worked, for the most part. Swearinger's touchdown was the exclamation point.
“They stopped playing after that, pretty much,” Clowney said.
Just the progress the Gamecocks were looking for with Clemson lurking.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at email@example.com or on Twitter @sapakoff