COLUMBIA -- It wasn't long ago that defense wore the goat horns for South Carolina's struggling football program.
It was a slow, bumbling unit that gave up yards and points by the truckload and kept the Gamecocks shackled near the cellar of the Southeastern Conference.
Times have changed, at least for now. The defense, which finished at the bottom of almost all of the conference's statistical categories in 1998, is now unquestionably the Gamecocks' strength, an often-staunch group that ranks in the upper echelon of the SEC.
"Defensively, we have played pretty well," said South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, whose 0-3 Gamecocks play at No. 23 Mississippi State on Saturday at 7 p.m.
But there's a twist. As much as the defense has improved, the offense has slipped into a hole so deep that Holtz used the word "abominable" Wednesday to describe its struggles.
So the defense, bolstered by improved tackling and adequate speed, has to carry the load even though it might not see the benefits -- not in the won-lost column, anyway.
"We're not pointing any fingers," said senior cornerback Arturo Freeman. "We're trying to give the confidence we have on defense to the offense."
Why the turnaround on defense? For starters, the Gamecocks are tackling better; their top three tacklers are linebackers, a sharp departure from the past few years, when safeties accounted for the brunt of the tackling. And their young secondary, expected to be a weak spot entering the season, is giving up just 117 yards per game through the air, tops in the conference.
Still, their frequent blitzes have allowed for big plays from the opposition. Last week, East Carolina exploited the Gamecocks' rush with successful draw plays late in the game and cruised, 21-3.
South Carolina was effective for the better part of three quarters, but the Gamecocks snapped when ECU marched with apparent ease late in the third quarter for the decisive score.
"We gave them one series all the way down the field," said Freeman, a senior cornerback who saw his first action since 1997 against ECU. "That wasn't the defense we're trying to be."
Said Holtz: "What disappointed me was we gave up four runs over 20 yards. I am concerned, because we don't make people pay the price."
Certainly not running backs. Georgia's Jasper Sanks rumbled for 130 yards in the Bulldogs' 24-9 win on Sept. 11, then ECU's Jamie Wilson amassed 151 last week.
"Our defense fades as we go along," Holtz said. "We cannot put pressure on the passer without blitzing. ... When you put that with the fact that now people can mix up the run and throw, it puts us in a little bit of a bind."
They could be in a bigger one come Saturday. Mississippi State (3-0) boasts the bulkiest offensive line in the conference -- on average, its starters are 6-foot-4, 322 pounds -- that is capable of pushing around a Gamecocks' front four that it outweighs by more than 60 pounds..
"Their offensive line is so big and strong and physical," Holtz said. "I'm just afraid they're going to move the line of scrimmage five yards every time the ball is snapped."
It would help if the Gamecocks were to snare an interception, something they haven't done yet.
"We don't have anybody really stepping up and making a play," Holtz said.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.