The momentum continues to build in Columbia as South Carolina won its third straight game on Saturday night. However, the manner in which the game was won may come as a surprise. On a night where neither offense was very productive, the defense saved the Gamecocks and kept bowl hopes alive. The final score was South Carolina 17 Kentucky 14. Clayton White’s unit did not always pass the eye test against the Wildcats. But a look back at how this game was won points to defensive stops. With only one game remaining this season, the Gamecocks are now just one win away from becoming bowl-eligible. Finishing strong could make something out of what has been a disappointing season.
Sometimes You Have to Win Ugly
Radio color analyst and former Gamecocks quarterback Tommy Suggs said, “Sometimes you have to win ugly, and that was ugly,” as the final seconds ran off the clock in Williams-Brice Stadium. Kentucky had its fair share of opportunities to win the ball game, but the Gamecock defense slammed the door. Coming into the matchup, it was clear that Ray Davis would be a focal point for the Wildcats offense. Carolina held him to 61 yards on just 12 carries. With not much going on the ground, Kentucky put the game on the arm of quarterback Devin Leary. As expected, his inaccuracy was costly for Big Blue. Leary overthrew receivers multiple times where he had his man running behind Gamecock defenders. Kentucky would have won the ball game if just one of those deep shots had connected.
Although Leary was inaccurate, the Gamecocks’ defense deserves credit for saving and flat-out winning this game. Sophomore safety Nick Emmanwori has had an up-and-down year. His battle with injuries early in the season and miscues in pass defense have cost Carolina at times. But he had a special night on Saturday against Kentucky with an early, leaping interception in the end zone and nine tackles on the night. The Gamecocks’ best defensive player in 2023, Debo Williams, went over the century mark for tackles on the season (102), with eight on Saturday night. White continued to mix up the looks but showed the 3-3-5 alignment that the Gamecocks have found much success with since Week 9 against Texas A&M. Increased athleticism in this formation allows South Carolina to get to the ball more quickly.
Pour on the Turnovers
Turnovers were a major deciding factor in the course of the game. In addition to the first quarter interception from Emmanwori, the Gamecocks’ defense forced three fumbles and recovered two of them. Kentucky started a drive from midfield with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter. On the drive’s first play, seventh-year defensive end Jordan Strachan came off the edge for a strip sack. The ball was caught in the air by Tonka Hemingway. While the Gamecock defense only had seven turnovers through eight games, they have recorded nine in the last three. This is a key to the team’s success in the “Remember November” four-game home stand. It is also notable to now look ahead to South Carolina’s final opponent and rival, the Clemson Tigers, who have been turnover-prone this season. If the flood of turnovers continues, that could shape the game next Saturday night in Columbia.
Carolina grabbed momentum with three timely turnovers but also got stops the old-fashioned way. The defense saved the Gamecocks’ season by shutting down the Wildcats time and time again. South Carolina punted eight times in the game but forced five punts from Kentucky along with a turnover on downs to end the game in the final seconds. It is encouraging for Gamecock fans to see the defense show the capability of stopping the opposing offense when turnovers aren’t happening as that was not the case, even in the wins, through the first eight games of the season. The “bend but don’t break” defense was breaking more times than not. Fans have written off White as defensive coordinator and have already begun speculating who Shane Beamer should hire to call the shots in 2024. With only 20 points allowed in the last two games, White may have found new life.
After the first two drives ended in 10 points for the Gamecocks, the offense did nothing until midway through the fourth quarter. With only two scholarship running backs, Dowell Loggains was limited in his play-calling ability. He clearly needed to protect his backs and survive this one as the Gamecocks now prepare for a huge matchup with their rival to close the season. As many anticipated, freshman quarterback LaNorris Sellers was called on to lighten the rushing load. The 6’3” 245-pound freshman got a handful of plays as the QB and carried the ball twice for nine yards. As the projected starter in 2024, this experience is valuable for Sellers. His big body and rushing ability give South Carolina a legitimate quarterback run threat when he is taking snaps.
However, the limitations from a rushing standpoint took their toll. Kentucky held Carolina to just 50 yards rushing as a team, with only 27 yards for Mario Anderson. The lack of a rushing attack put more responsibility on Spencer Rattler as the Wildcats felt comfortable dialing up pressure regularly. The offense found some success early through quick passes around the line of scrimmage. However, it was the downfield connection from Rattler to Xavier Legette that, once again, made the difference for the Gamecocks on the scoreboard. The two hooked up nine times for 94 yards and both of the touchdowns that Carolina scored on the night. Rattler made a clutch throw in the face of pressure to an in-breaking Legette for a 17-yard touchdown with about eight minutes to go in the game. That proved to be the winning score, which put the Gamecocks up 17-14.
The defense saved the Gamecocks on Saturday night, but they will need to win in all three phases next week to complete a perfect November with a second straight win over arch-rival Clemson. With four losses on the season, the Tigers are not as formidable of an opponent as they have been at times in the past decade. However, they are hot as they also ride a three-game winning streak heading into the final game. The Tigers present some matchup nightmares for Carolina. The Gamecocks have their work cut out for them if they want to come away with the victory. Certainly, turnovers are a major factor, but the Carolina offense will need to find ways to score points against what may be the best defense it has seen all year.
Stay tuned for a breakdown of this matchup and more later this week.