WHO: No. 11 South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 SEC) at Tennessee (3-3, 0-2)
WHEN: Saturday, noon
WHERE: Knoxville, Tenn.
LINE: USC by 71/2
COLUMBIA — Even when South Carolina’s defense was blowing big leads its offense had built, there was no finger-pointing within the team.
The Gamecocks’ offense has been a juggernaut all season, averaging 34.5 points per game. That’s a field goal more than last season’s average. Many believe it’s the best group during Steve Spurrier’s tenure.
Meanwhile, USC’s defense struggled before Saturday’s dominating performance at Arkansas. The Gamecocks are allowing 22.7 points per game, but they shaved a field goal off their season average last weekend when they held the Razorbacks to seven points.
The defense especially struggled in the fourth quarter, allowing a combined 51 points in the final 15 minutes against Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky. In the process, it picked up plenty of critics.
USC quarterback Connor Shaw isn’t one of them.
“I think they took too much of the blame,” Shaw said. “I can remember this offense, when I first took over, we were struggling to find our identity and our defense had our backs. So it’s kind of flipped this time.”
Shaw said Saturday’s defensive performance was proof the young group had turned its struggles around. Instead of caving in, the defense stepped up.
Part of their improvement undoubtedly comes from the patience USC’s offensive side has shown. The support USC’s offense has provided its defense — both on the field and on the sideline — hasn’t gone unnoticed, nor unappreciated. Midway through the season, senior cornerback Jimmy Legree said there is good chemistry between USC’s offensive and defensive players.
“They keep everybody up,” Legree said. “If things go bad, there on the sidelines, they’re cheering us up. Telling us, ‘Just pick it up, we’ve got your back.’ No matter what happens, we’re a team and we’ve got to stick together.”
Jadeveon Clowney only had one tackle in his return to the field at Arkansas, but defensive line coach Deke Adams said another number was a better indicator of the junior’s play.
Four. That’s the number of plays the Razorbacks ran in Clowney’s direction all game.
No surprise, not after the season it’s been, that Arkansas continued the trend of playing keep-away with USC’s star defensive end. Even if Clowney’s stats didn’t jump out on the box score, Adams said his return to the field had a major impact on the defense.
“I thought it was big because obviously everybody knows he draws all the attention,” Adams said. “When he can take up two or three guys, it allows other guys to do other things and even takes some stress off of our linebackers. That’s what happened Saturday, and we had some guys make some plays.”
Despite only one tackle, Adams said Clowney graded out at 91 percent. That grade is consistent with his post-game evaluations throughout the season.
“I don’t put a big emphasis on the percentage grade,” Adams said. “It’s a production grade for me, but I know that his production is not the same that it’s been because of all the attention he’s getting on the field, so that plays a part in it to a certain degree.”
A couple headaches
Linebacker Skai Moore was diving for a tackle on the final play of USC’s blowout Saturday when a knee hit him in the head, giving him a concussion.
Moore said it was his second lifetime concussion, the first coming when he was a high school sophomore. On Tuesday, Moore said he would be evaluated either Wednesday or Thursday, and his status for the Gamecocks’ game Saturday at Tennessee will be determined at that time.
“It’s not really frustrating because you’re out there giving it your all every play,” Moore said. “It’s just an unfortunate thing that happened. It’s just football. It’s going to happen. So, just got to get through it.”
Moore’s concussion was announced immediately after the game Saturday, but he wasn’t the only defensive player to get a concussion. Coach Steve Spurrier said safety Chaz Elder also had a concussion against Arkansas, but he didn’t realize it until later in the game.
“I realized toward the end of the game,” said Elder, who had never had a concussion before. “I wasn’t feeling right, I had an amazing headache, the sun was bothering.”
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