Players’ suggestion spurred USC’s defensive turnaround against Texas A&M

Skai Moore and South Carolina's defense clamped down on Texas A&M quarterback Kyler Murray late in last week's 35-28 loss, helping USC to stay in the game. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

It was beginning to feel like 2014 all over again. In the second half last Saturday at Kyle Field, Texas A&M wasn’t just on the brink of pulling away from South Carolina, but generating enough yardage to rival even the worst-in-program-history total the Gamecocks had allowed to the Aggies the previous year.

That was when Skai Moore, T.J. Holloman, and a few other veteran members of USC’s defense approached co-coordinator Jon Hoke with a suggestion — limit the defensive calls to just a pair of coverages, in the hope that players would focus less on scheme and more on correcting the mistakes that were helping Texas A&M take control of the game.

“We just wanted to go in there and stick to the basics, simplify it so there wouldn’t be any question with anybody,” said Holloman, a junior linebacker. “Everybody had to be accountable for their responsibility, for their gap. So we just wanted to simplify it for everyone, just go out there and just play base defense.”

The result? USC limited Texas A&M’s offense to one second-half touchdown and forced punts on its final three possessions, giving the Gamecocks hope of tying the game until a late interception sealed a 35-28 defeat. With 5:58 remaining in the third quarter, the Aggies were on pace to finish with a yardage total uncomfortably close to the 680 USC had allowed in its worst-ever defensive effort in 2014. From then on, the Gamecocks held them to 66 yards.

For a beleaguered unit that, despite a number of changes, remains exactly where it finished last season — next-to-last in the SEC in total defense — it represented the faintest glimmer of progress. And it started with players bringing the idea to Hoke, whom Moore said was immediately receptive to the suggestion.

“Definitely,” said the junior linebacker. “I came up to him and he said, ‘All right. Whatever you feel like is going to work.’ He trusted us. So it was a good deal.”

Interim head coach Shawn Elliott said the idea of a player suggesting a tactical change to a coach isn’t as bold as it might seem. “They’ve got some common sense, too. They can come to us,” he said.

“I can certainly tell you, there’s not one of us sitting right here in this room today that has all the answers. And for a player to come up and have the ability to communicate to his coach about, ‘Hey, let’s try to do this,’ I think that says a lot about what they can say to a coach, and vice versa.”

Moore, who had a career-high 14 tackles in the game, said he never hesitated to suggest the change. “I feel like there’s definitely a trust level,” he added. “If we have a suggestion from what we see on the field — we have a firsthand view of everything that’s happening — there’s definitely a trust level where he would take our word on something if we have a suggestion. So it’s good.”

Making his first career start, Texas A&M freshman quarterback Kyler Murray burned the Gamecocks (3-5, 1-5 SEC) with his running ability, becoming the first Aggies QB to rush for more than 100 yards and pass for more than 200 since former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. But on his final three series, Murray was limited to 30 yards passing and 11 yards on the ground.

“A bunch of guys weren’t in their gaps,” Holloman said. “A bunch of guys were supposed to have a man, they let their man go. But second half, we cleaned it up, we simplified everything, and we fit the system right.”

USC faces a similar challenge Saturday at Tennessee (4-4, 2-3), whose quarterback Josh Dobbs passed for 301 yards and rushed for 166 aganst the Gamecocks last season. At 6-3 and 218 pounds, the junior Dobbs is a bigger, savvier player than the 5-11, 188-pound Murray. While players said the shift to a more simplified defense against Texas A&M was situational, they won’t be shy about suggesting another potential change to Hoke.

“He trusts in us,” Holloman said. “We’re out there on the field, we see it firsthand.”

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