COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina entered this season ranked in the Top 10 (6th AP, 7th ESPN Coaches) largely because of a defense that was expected to be one of the best in the nation.
The Gamecocks were anything but early in the season, starting with the opener against North Carolina when media, most notably ESPN's David Pollack, questioned the effort and conditioning of All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
It got worse the following week against Georgia when the Bulldogs piled up 536 yards in total offense and punted only once in a 41-30 victory over the Gamecocks.
Since that time, the defense has quietly gone about the business of getting better, and while it hasn't always been pretty, the results speak for themselves.
The 14th-ranked Gamecocks are 6-2 overall, 4-2 in the SEC, and squarely in the hunt for an SEC East title, trailing Missouri by a game in the loss column and owning the tiebreaker with the Tigers thanks to last week's 27-24 victory in two overtimes.
The Gamecocks are where they are because of a total team effort, but the defense deserves its share of the credit.
|Run Defense||Pass Defense||Total Defense||Scoring Defense|
|120.6 (17th)||194.8 (21st)||315.4 (11th)||18.2 (13th)|
Courtesy of NCAA
Through eight games, South Carolina's defense is ranked No. 21 or better nationally in at least four major statistical categories, including 11th in total defense at 315.4 yards per game.
Additionally, the Clowney bashing has ceased over the last three games as he and the remainder of the front four have become the disruptive presence that everyone expected.
"Our defense is improving from the big mistakes we had early in the year," said middle linebacker T.J. Holloman. "Now, getting later in the year, we've made big improvement, but we're not where we want to be. There's still a lot of room for improvement, but from the beginning of the season until now we've taken big steps."
The play of the linebackers, including Holloman, has been a significant area of improvement.
Inexperienced and undersized to begin the season, the linebackers are now merely undersized, as evidenced by Spur linebacker Sharrod Golightly, who goes a little too lightly at 5'10'' 195 pounds.
The Gamecocks' inexperience at linebacker helped create communication problems on defense that extended into the secondary, where there have been horrific busts.
It seems at least once a game, the Gamecocks have given up a big pass play where the nearest defender wasn't within cell phone distance of the receiver. Talk about dropped coverage.
Yet, even in the face of such mistakes, South Carolina's defense has found a way to persevere.
Just look at last week's game at No. 5-ranked and previously unbeaten Missouri.
South Carolina had fumbled the ball away to the Tigers at the Missouri 2-yard line. Perfect spot for the defense to force a three-and-out and get the ball back in great field position.
Two plays later, one of those communication breakdowns happened and the Tigers were on the board with a 96-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 lead.
It was the type of momentum swing to make a lesser team give up.
Yet in the second half with South Carolina trailing 17-0 in the third quarter, the defense held the rope the remainder of regulation against an offense that was averaging 44.3 points per game.
Meanwhile the Gamecocks climbed back into it, tying the game and sending it into overtime and an eventual victory.
South Carolina's defense seems to be coming around at just the right time. The Gamecocks simply need to keep on coming.
"When you ask our (defensive) coaches if their players played well last week not many of them say they did," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. "We had a lot of errors here, there and the other, but we got away with it. We have to play fundamentally better than we've been playing or it's going to catch up to us. We have a lot of coaching to do. We're hanging on the edge and we think we're a better team than we have played most of the games. We're still trying to hit that level of being a really good team."
All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated.
All rankings refer to BCS unless otherwise indicated.