COLUMBIA — The mental image is one of voices turned up to full volume, and locker room walls left in need of a new coat of paint. The reality is a more restrained approach to a South Carolina defense that’s been one unit going into halftime, and quite another coming out.
“That’s not the right time to scream,” said co-defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. “We want to coach them, and continue to coach them better. We want to coach them hard, but we want to make sure we make the corrections and fix what we’re doing wrong. The guys get it after halftime. Hopefully, we’ll start that way this week, and they’ll get it from the start.”
Facing a seventh-ranked Georgia team that presents one of the nation’s top offensive weapons in tailback Nick Chubb, the burden will be on the Gamecocks to piece together a complete defensive effort for the first time this season. USC hasn’t allowed an offensive score after halftime through its first two games, but is 1-1 (0-1 SEC) because of first-half lapses that allowed Kentucky to score 24 unanswered points.
The Wildcats ran up 307 yards in the opening half of last Saturday’s 26-22 victory over USC, one week after North Carolina took 243 yards and a 13-10 lead into the break. In both cases it was a different story after halftime, when the Gamecocks limited the Tar Heels to 197 yards and forced two turnovers, while Kentucky went three-and-out on five straight possessions and managed just 92 yards.
The only second-half score allowed so far this season by USC was the return of a fumbled two-point attempt for a defensive conversion by Kentucky’s Denzil Ware. But poor approach angles and missed tackles in the opening half against the Wildcats have the Gamecocks potentially facing their first 1-2 start since 2008.
“Our kids know we didn’t play as well as we could have in the first half, and they take a lot of ownership in what we’re doing, and they take pride in it,” said USC defensive line coach Deke Adams. “They want to be better. They came in and looked each other in the eye and said, ‘Let’s go,’ and made some of those adjustments and we went to work. Hopefully, we can get that done and get it going from the beginning to the end.”
Ward said the second-half turnarounds aren’t necessarily a matter of coaches making adjustments, but players better executing assignments. “We’ve missed some plays for one reason or another in the first half that we don’t miss in the second half,” he said.
Head coach Steve Spurrier agreed. “I think the guys just played the game better, basically,” he said.
The focus is on maintaining a fast start, which USC was unable to do after an early interception produced a brief lead over Kentucky. “We know what we can do, and what we have the potential to do. We just have to do it, and I think we just start a little late,” said linebacker Jonathan Walton. “... We have the talent, we have the guys, we just need to take care of our assignments.”
That will certainly be paramount against Chubb, who has had 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing games, two off the school record owned by Herschel Walker. With Georgia’s passing game still a work in progress — starting quarterback Greyson Lambert was benched in last week’s victory over Vanderbilt — the Bulldogs (2-0, 1-0) rushed the ball 41 times against the Commodores, with Chubb getting almost half those carries.
“Chubb is one of the best you’ll ever see,” Spurrier said. “Just like any of the great running backs, you hope to not let him get started, not give him much of a hole at the line of scrimmage. We’ll try to get a bunch of guys up there, like everybody else tries to do when they play Georgia, and try to do our best to stop him.”
Georgia’s stable of backs also includes Sony Michel and Keith Marshall, former four-star recruits in their own right.
“Definitely their No. 1 goal is to run the football. Georgia’s always been that way,” Ward said. “That’s what we expect. ... We’re definitely going to get Chubb right, Chubb left, and then we’re going to get Sony, and then they’re going to put Marshall in.”
And for the Gamecocks, 17-point underdogs heading to Sanford Stadium, it will take a full-game defensive effort to try and stop it.
“I think the guys get a little more relaxed, because we don’t change a lot at halftime. We just try to do what we do, and do it better,” Ward said. “For some reason, we’ve got to figure out how to start that way.”