COLUMBIA — Chaz Sutton heard the critics outside South Carolina’s football program last week. He heard them from inside the team, too.
Reeling from a dismal performance at Georgia, coaches corralled USC’s defensive line before its SEC home opener Saturday against Vanderbilt. They implored the group to play better. They insisted the letdown could not repeat against the Commodores, or any other opponent.
After Georgia successfully ran plays away from star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — taking advantage of perceived gaps in USC’s defense — Sutton knew he needed to make more plays.
“We just tried to dominate the first part of the game,” Sutton said, referring to Vanderbilt.
He got his chance on Saturday’s third play.
The Gamecocks had an opportunity to make an early statement. Sutton came from the left edge, sprinting with full furry toward Vandy quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, completely unblocked.
His sack forced the game’s first punt.
“I was shocked myself, but, hey — however it happens, it happens. It just happened,” Sutton said. “It was an empty set, and the tackle blocked down. Guess he just forgot about me, just left me open. I guess a (running) back was supposed to come, or somebody was supposed to come and seal me off or whatever, but nobody ever showed up. So it was easy to make a play.”
Sutton said the sack “got a lot of guys fired up.” The adrenaline lasted much of the game. The play set a tone Saturday. South Carolina’s defensive line would not be pushed around.
Sutton, the senior, led the way with four tackles and 1.5 sacks against Vanderbilt. Junior defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles had two stops — one a sack, the other a tackle for no gain. Both Quarles’ tackles were in the game’s opening six minutes.
The point was to take the pressure off Clowney, loosen him up in USC’s pass rush. It worked well. The junior had four tackles, including a sack and forced fumble in the third quarter.
“I talk to them every game, every practice,” Clowney said Saturday when asked about Sutton and Quarles making plays. “I just tell them, ‘Man, it’s time for y’all to shine. Y’all gotta do your part, you know. Step up and be a leader, be a playmaker. That’s all I want you to be this year, is be a playmaker.
“So, I just stay in their ear about that, and they showed up to play.”
USC’s five sacks Saturday were a season high. By the time the Gamecocks started showing any weakness in their defense, they led by four scores.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward deflected any notion Clowney’s teammates needed to play better to open things up for the Gamecocks’ star. Ward said each player needed to be more fundamentally sound, not slacking on the basics.
Ward admitted there’s a big difference with USC’s defense when the line leads the way, as it did Saturday. If it continues, perhaps the letdown at Georgia will stay in the past.
“Our leadership should be up front,” Ward said. “That’s where we’ve got the most experience with players who have played. For them to come out and do what they did at the start of the game was impressive, and I think other guys fed off that. We’ve just got to do it for 60 minutes.”