COLUMBIA — One of South Carolina’s biggest questions coming into the season was whether the Gamecocks’ new defensive coordinator could keep the unit among the nation’s elite. So far, Lorenzo Ward has been able to do it.
South Carolina hasn’t allowed a team to score a touchdown in the red zone and is ranked seventh in the nation, allowing 10 points a game.
Ward had plenty of talent left over from last season’s defense under Ellis Johnson that was ranked third in the nation, allowing just 268 yards a game. Ward, who took over when Johnson became coach at Southern Miss, has his defense giving up 316 yards a contest so far in 2012, but it also has made more big plays, collecting 14 sacks and forcing seven turnovers.
“We want to be able to create plays for our offense, whether that’s causing a turnover or putting them in great field position,” Ward said after South Carolina’s 49-6 win over Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.
South Carolina’s stout defense has taken a load off of head coach Steve Spurrier, who has plenty to worry about on the offensive side of the ball. Starting quarterback Connor Shaw has been knocked out of two of three games with a hairline fracture on his throwing shoulder. Spurrier said the team will have to wait and see if Shaw can start next Saturday against Missouri.
“This is not a surgery type injury,” Spurrier said of Shaw’s shoulder. “It’s a small, little fracture, they call it, or like a bone bruise of some nature, and it’s just painful. It’s not going to get worse, they say.”
Spurrier is also worried about his offensive line, even though his team is running for 172 yards a game.
“We’re always looking at it. We’ve got maybe two to three guys that we know are going to start, but there’s maybe a couple in there we need to look and see if someone can do better,” Spurrier said.
Spurrier these days doesn’t mind leaning on his defense when he needs to.
“That’s sort of what we expect from our guys,” he said. “We think we should be that kind of defense most of the time.”
Ward’s more aggressive approach is most evident when teams start facing obvious passing situations. That’s when Ward sends in his rabbit package, putting four defensive ends on the line. They usually cause havoc in the backfield, with sophomore Jadeveon Clowney leading the charge,
“It’s pretty fun. You’re in go mode and you’re after the quarterback. And that’s one of the things I like to do, make sacks on the quarterback,” said Clowney, who had two sacks and two additional tackles for loss against UAB.
The rabbit package also impressed UAB coach Garrick McGee on Saturday night.
“’’I think there defensive front is one of the top defensive fronts in the country,” McGee said. “I think at some point in the game they are going to put pressure on any quarterback in the country.”
The pressure then allows the Gamecocks secondary to make plays, too. Cornerback Jimmy Legree had a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown against East Carolina, and free safety D.J. Swearinger returned a fumble 65 yards for a TD against the Blazers.
Perhaps the proudest accomplishment for South Carolina’s defense is no one has scored a touchdown after getting inside the 20 against them. Vanderbilt’s only touchdown came on a 78 yard pass, East Carolina’s lone TD was a 34-yard pass and UAB never got in the end zone at all. The Gamecocks are one of four Football Bowl Division teams that haven’t allowed a red zone touchdown this season.
“We want to protect our home. When we get in the red zone, we want to try to raise our level of play,” Ward said. “If we can’t keep people out of the end zone, we don’t have a chance to lose a lot of football games.”
When Ward watches film, he expects to see every player’s helmet on the screen if the ball is moving forward when the offensive player is tackled. The players also responded to his more aggressive style. During drills where balls are fired at them to practice interceptions, anyone who drops a pick has to do 15 push-ups, Swearinger said.
“We are enjoying the way he is calling the defense,” Swearinger said. “It gives us a little edge on defense when we know we are going to have fun out there.”