By Josh Hyber/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Charlotte, N.C — South Carolina’s defense bent but didn’t break in its season-opening victory on Saturday.
It allowed NC State’s Ryan Finley to throw for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, but held the signal caller to just 119 in the second.
The unit had no sacks and allowed 21 points in the first half, but had four in the second while allowing just seven points.
“We got our four-man pass rush a little better,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said. “In the first half (NC State) did a really good job as far as, not in a negative way, but getting the ball out quickly … (Finley) was very accurate and the ball was out very quickly.”
In all, the Gamecocks’ (1-0) defense held firm when it needed in the teams’ 35-28 season-opening victory over the Wolfpack (0-1) at Bank of America Stadium. The D finished with the four sacks, 11 tackles for loss and four pass breakups.
In the second half, Muschamp said Finley held onto the ball a bit longer, which enabled the South Carolina pass rush to find him.
So, what was the wakeup call?
“We wanted to win,” Gamecocks’ safety D.J. Smith said. “I feel like we came out a little slow … We went into the locker room and we all came together and talked about how we worked out this summer and worked hard and how we’re a family.
“At the end of the day, I think we wanted it more than them.”
But it was more than that.
The Gamecock defense was picked apart in the first half on short passes across the middle, especially on slants and wheel routes.
Of Finley’s 27 first-half completions, 17 were for 10 yards or less.
“They ran a lot of routes that were five and six yards,” Smith said. “And a lot of the coverage we had, we really couldn’t do anything about that. So we just tried to adjust as best we could.”
The safety said the Gamecock defense switched its coverage on how it guarded “pick” routes to the outside.
“(But) I don’t think five yards (at a time) can win a game,” Smith said. “Them getting those little short plays wasn’t going to win the game. I think our coaches realized that. So we just kept playing and kept with our game plan.”
The first half to second half improvement wasn’t more apparent than on the game’s final drive, despite a pass interference penalty on cornerback JaMarcus King that gave the Wolfpack first-and-10 from the Gamecocks’ 30-yard line with less than a minute to go in regulation.
Lineman Keir Thomas hurried Finley on a first and 10. Dante Sawyer hurried Finley on another first and 10. Smith stopped Wolfpack receiver Kelvin Harmon from making a catch on a first and goal.
Bryson Allen-Williams sacked Finley on a second and goal with about 30 seconds remaining.
And then, on the final play, it all came together.
Defensive end D.J. Wonnum pressured Finley and forced a throw that was swatted down by Smith.
“Initially we were in a little zone. Me and (King) were doubling, I think it was (Harmon),” Smith said. “(Finley) started scrambling so I came up a little bit. I didn’t know if I wanted to come up to try to tackle him or stay back. But I always remember what my coach told us: Stay in our zone if they scramble. (Finley) threw it just in my range and I put a hand up there and tipped it.”
Said SC quarterback Jake Bentley, “I felt like we kinda picked up the defense in the second half and they really rallied behind us throughout the second half. That’s why we’re a team. That’s why we train together and do everything together, because we fight for one another. And that's what it’s all about.”
In the first half alone the South Carolina defense allowed 343 yards (296 passing, 47 rushing), which included touchdowns on NC State’s first two drives.
NC State H-back Jaylen Samuel zig-zagged in and out of South Carolina defenders, sitting between Gamecocks’ linebackers and safeties. The dynamic 5-foot-11, 228-pound senior — who led NC State in receptions the past two seasons — caught seven passes for 53 yards in the first half. He caught five for first downs, including two on the Wolfpack’s opening drive — one on a 3rd and 9 and the other on a 4th and 2.
But it was Harmon who had eight catches for 99 yards in the first half. The 6-foot-3, 213-pounder caught the first pass on all three NC State scoring drives.
Sawyer did force a fumble that was recovered by Rashad Fenton on NC State’s first possession of the second quarter, but the Gamecocks’ offense punted five players later.
It all changed in the second half.
“We just had to get better, as a whole unit, as a defense,” Sawyer said. “You know, I just came out and did what I had to do to help the defense. We’re going to catch up (tomorrow) and see what we can do to get better.”
Sawyer agreed that the second-half performance will be a confidence booster for the unit going forward.
“We knew what we could do coming into the game,” he said. “We’ve just got to apply it. We’ve got to come out and do what we’re taught to do and do what’s in the system.”
The defensive lineman said the message at halftime was that there was a whole new ballgame to be played.
“We needed to come out in the second half and do what we’ve got to do,” he said. “Just play Gamecock football.”