COLUMBIA — He walked off the field frustrated and humiliated after South Carolina lost a 34-14 game it was barely in. Will Muschamp didn’t hear the huckleberry Missouri fan shouting to him that he was going to be fired because the symphony in his head drowned out everything else.
How? How could the Gamecocks' defense, his specialty, be this bad?
How could they not tackle? How could they not cover? How could they not do what he knew they could do?
“Just get back to work,” said Muschamp. “We need to get back to work and find some answers on how we can play more consistently as a team.”
South Carolina was 1-3 (0-2 SEC) after its miserable trip to Missouri. Talk of a Muschamp buyout was heating up.
There wasn’t a genie to grant him a wish and he couldn’t start over. But there was something he could try, really a Band-Aid more than a full-scale overhaul.
“Sitting by myself in the Missouri locker room figuring out what we needed to do to get better, and that was just in my mind, knowing that Sherrod Greene has played better than the other guys we were putting in the game at the time,” Muschamp said.
He didn’t wait. Muschamp marched into the football conference room that Sunday and threw his new plan on the table.
“This is what we’re doing,” he said, not inviting or accepting arguments.
The Gamecocks’ defense didn’t fuss then and surely isn’t now. Since Muschamp’s decision, USC is 2-0 and it’s like the defense just stepped into the full-color land of Oz after being stuck in gray and dreary Kansas.
They’ve given up 340 yards per game in wins over Kentucky and Georgia, a drastic drop from the 417 they allowed in the first four games. While their rushing defense’s statistical drop is tiny (144 from 145), the Wildcats nor Bulldogs were able to rip any explosive runs against USC.
The move was simple. Muschamp kept Greene on the field with fellow linebackers Ernest Jones and T.J. Brunson, and quit relying so much on the nickelback (fifth defensive back), a staple of his first three seasons.
One move among 11 often doesn’t make much difference. This one is making Muschamp resemble Gen. George S. Patton.
“We were able to find a way to get our best guys out there on the field,” Jones said. “The best way to stop the run was for us to be in three linebackers, adding Sherrod to the mix and getting rid of one of the smaller corners or nickels.”
An extra man up front is helping contain running backs, while also limiting the space a nickel would have to cover to get to a receiver near the sideline. It does open a larger possibility of the opponent matching a receiver on a linebacker, who doesn’t have the speed of a nickel, but thus far, the three linebackers haven’t been fazed.
Of Greene's 18 tackles this season, 10 have come in the last two games and include 1½ tackles for loss. His emergence has taken some of the load from Brunson, who was struggling to bring down ball-carriers in space but now looks like what he was always thought to be: the successor to his mentor, former USC star Skai Moore.
“T.J. Brunson shouldn’t have to play 900 snaps,” linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler said in the preseason. "The guy’s a freakin’ warrior, man.”
But now he has help. Jones has emerged as the Gamecocks’ best overall defender and a move to a 4-3 defensive alignment, rather than a 4-2-5, has gotten a playmaker back on the field.
“At first it was a little rough, because I haven’t played (strongside linebacker) since my sophomore year. I’m starting to get more confident every day now,” Greene said. “With me, all I had to do was just get the timing part of it.”
“Having that extra linebacker and Sherrod’s speed, being able to go down the line and tackle some of these backs behind the line,” Jones said when asked about Greene’s best attributes. “During the game, when we were supposed to be predominantly nickel, he would just be out there a little bit more than when we were running our nickel stuff, so I kind of figured that’s where things were headed.”
Muschamp didn’t want any credit, preferring to wait until the end of the year to talk about the overall performance of the defense. He also said that while Greene’s addition worked, it took Muschamp four games to figure it out.
“We’ve played better, there’s no doubt. It always comes back to players,” he said. “Sherrod Greene was playing better than those guys that we were putting out there. He’s done a nice job of claiming the slot, doing some different things that we’re doing with him.”
Ninth-ranked Florida on Saturday offers another challenge. The Gators can come at a defense in all sorts of ways.
But Muschamp already made one major decision for his defense. He hopes he won't need to make another.
Quarterback Ryan Hilinski has been cleared to play after being knocked out of the Georgia game. The hit that removed him for most of the second half looked serious, but Hilinski has taken every rep in practice the past two days and will be out there Saturday.
"(Ryan Hilinski is) fine," Muschamp said Thursday. "He’ll start the game."