COLUMBIA — Jaylan Foster got his hands around the football and saw what every defensive back dreams of seeing — a wall of teammates in front of him and a clear path to the end zone.
He nearly got there, his foot clipping the sideline at the 7-yard line on his way to the goal line. But the group of Gamecocks around Foster celebrated as if they had all scored, even as a yellow flag was spotted at the line of scrimmage.
Penalty. Offside, South Carolina. The pick and return didn’t count.
“Just watch the tape of how hard the other 10 guys on defense are working to get to the end zone,” USC coach Shane Beamer said. “It was pretty cool to watch.”
What was cooler was the aftermath. The Gamecocks’ 46-0 win over Eastern Illinois was already in hand. Removing the pick-six didn’t change anything in that regard.
But to the players, who had just seen one of their own score and all had a hand in it? Brutal.
“After that play, all this excitement about what just happened, we have a penalty that was unacceptable and they had to go right back out there on the field,” Beamer marveled. “They came right back there, put the ball down and stopped them again.”
That’s the defense’s mantra, “Put the ball down.” It emphasizes and symbolizes that every snap, every chance they get to do what they do, they play with maximum effort.
“I got that from Dave Huxtable,” USC defensive coordinator Clayton White said, referring to the former N.C. State defensive coordinator and current Alabama defensive analyst. “Make sure that every day the kids come to the building, that their mind is set on football. We want to play football. We want to play defensive football.”
The Gamecocks did that last week. They posted the program’s first shutout in 13 seasons, recorded two sacks, two interceptions, a defensive touchdown that wasn’t called back (Jordan Burch) and held the Panthers to 109 yards. USC’s defense is ranked third in the country going into Saturday’s noon kickoff at East Carolina.
Nobody’s holding onto that too tightly this week. It was one game against an FCS opponent.
Yet compared to the last time it took the field, USC looked so much crisper, fundamentally sound and most importantly, committed. There were far too many busted assignments last year that looked like they could have been filled if the player had simply cared.
“We’re always looking for loafs, make sure our guys don’t take any plays off,” Beamer said. “We couldn’t find a single play where there was a lack of effort.”
“I actually didn’t know that. That’s a really good stat to have,” linebacker Brad Johnson said. “That’s the mentality that we want to have on defense — everybody flying to the ball. That way you know your brothers are with you, so you don’t have to feel the play is on you."
White and Beamer walked the line between deservedly celebrating a win and getting ready for ECU.
“You have to let them know the good things they do and what they can improve,” White said. “It’s harder to get their attention after a win. ‘You guys played great, but here are some mistakes, some things that could have happened against another opponent.’”
The Gamecocks have taken it to heart. ECU lost its first game to Appalachian State, but Beamer, White and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield have talked up the Pirates this week like they’re the 1985 Chicago Bears defense mixed with the 2001 Miami Hurricanes offense, with Tom Brady quarterbacking.
A shutout is something to stick one’s chest out about, but it means diddly a day after the game. USC is combining that pride with the need to keep gaining more.
“Every week is a Super Bowl, that’s how coach White talks to us about it,” Johnson said. “We’re just going to go out there every day, and do what we can do day by day to prepare and get ready to whup these boys on Saturday.”