COLUMBIA - His players began the season talking seriously about a Southeastern Conference title.
So after South Carolina lost two of its first three games, coach Lou Holtz had to work feverishly to bail the water from what had the makings of a sinking ship.
"What's hard when you're 1-2 is to sell them on the importance of getting better," Holtz said Monday. "You don't know what the future holds. You're sitting there 1-2, and everybody's waiting for the bottom to fall out."
Instead of falling apart, Holtz's team has bonded since losing back-to-back games to Virginia and Georgia. A four-game winning streak has put the Gamecocks back into the SEC picture and done wonders for the team's confidence.
"We're becoming more of a team now," said Holtz, whose team visits No. 14 Louisiana State on Saturday (7:45 p.m., ESPN2). "Our guys are getting to know one another and realize that everybody has to step up."
According to junior cornerback Dunta Robinson, the seeds for this mini-revival were planted the week after a Sept. 21 win over Temple. The Gamecocks pulled away in the second half and won, 42-21, but something didn't feel quite right.
Most of the concern stemmed from a defense that hadn't yet shown the form that made it one of the best in the SEC the previous three seasons. The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-1 SEC) were struggling to stop the run, and Holtz was lamenting the unit's lack of a vocal leader.
During a team meeting, several defensive players spoke up. All were seniors, and each delivered a message that the Gamecocks were playing below their potential.
First it was nose tackle Langston Moore. Then it was linebacker Jermaine Lemon. Spur safeties Rashad Faison and Jonathan Martin also weighed in.
"The seniors spoke up and said what needed to be done and what kind of turnaround we needed to have," Robinson said.
The defense played better the next week against Vanderbilt, giving up 241 total yards - 105 passing - in the 20-14 win in Nashville. Mississippi State visited Columbia on Oct. 5 and was limited to 69 yards rushing on 25 carries as the Gamecocks won their third straight, 34-10.
It wasn't until last week, however, that South Carolina's defense was truly reminiscent of its predecessors. The Gamecocks stifled Kentucky's prolific offense in a 16-12 victory that saw the Wildcats score points on just one of their three trips inside South Carolina's 20-yard line.
Improved defense hasn't been the only ingredient in the winning streak, but it has been essential to giving the Gamecocks an identity that they lacked earlier in the season.
"The meeting was very important, because we didn't know who the leaders were," said Robinson, who is tied for second in the SEC with three interceptions. "For those guys to come out and say some of the things they said, it was like we took a breath of relief."
The offense, though it has yet to function as smoothly as Holtz would prefer, has cut down on the turnover problems that plagued it against Virginia and Georgia. After committing 11 turnovers in the two losses, the Gamecocks have had five in the past four games.
"The ball doesn't bounce your way every now and then," senior receiver Ryan Brewer said. "You've got to get it back going that way, and once it does it's kind of like a snowball effect. ... We're holding on to the ball, and once you do that, it just builds."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org