Ellis Johnson had to harken back to his days as an assistant coach at East Carolina in the mid-1980s to recall the last time his defense was on the field for 92 plays in a single game.
But it happened on Saturday in the 16-13 home loss to Auburn. The Gamecock defense kept the Tigers offense at bay for 55 minutes until finally allowing a 12-play, 57-yard drive, the longest of the afternoon for Auburn in terms of plays, for the game-winning touchdown with 1:38 left. Auburn was 4-of-4 on third downs during the drive, converting a third-and-13 and a third-and-9 along the way.
"You could see some of the fatigue," Johnson said. "Obviously, our tackling was not as physical in the end. Our pass rush was still good, but probably wasn't as effective. It affects you mentally. You only have so many bullets in your gun."
Auburn averaged 3.9 yards per play compared to USC's average of 5.6 yards. But Auburn grinded out the win by running the ball an astounding 67 times - 41 carries for 141 yards by Michael Dyer - and controlling the ball for almost 36 minutes.
Most major college defenses will eventually succumb in those circumstances, and USC is no different.
"When you have 92 plays, that's going to happen," Johnson said. "They accumulated a lot of yards because of the number of plays. We were very effective against their running game until it got up to about 55 rushes. We played poorly against the Wildcat. You have to give kudos to Dyer. He got hurt during the game, but hung in there and came back and pounded it up in there. I wasn't displeased with our running defense except we had a few bad fits."
Depth remains an issue at some defensive positions, though superior conditioning was able to overcome that shortcoming for most of the afternoon until the very end.
"Conditioning is about mental toughness and we showed a lot of that," Johnson said. "We have depth at some positions, but poor depth in others. Whether the film shows that aspect, I don't know. We roll our linebackers every series. But we don't have that luxury at every position. So, depth is a plus at some positions, but we still have issues at a couple of places where we need people to step up and give somebody some competition for their job. It makes us a better team and makes them better players."
The depth along the defensive front and linebacker is good, Johnson said, but spur and the secondary remain spots where not enough players are involved. Damario Jeffery has moved back to spur behind Antonio Allen, and he's getting "better and better" there.
"Antonio is the only one making any plays for us at spur," Johnson said. "We have to get to the point where we can play Damario more. It's just in the perimeter (where the lack of depth is)."
Depth in the secondary is steadily improving, though. The debut of redshirt freshman cornerback Victor Hampton two games ago and safety Brison Williams' remarkable recovery from a broken lower arm has boosted the rotation.
"Some of the issues we had at the beginning of the year have gotten better at this stage," Johnson said.
USC is sixth in the SEC in total defense (310.2 yards per game). Four of their final seven games are against opponents behind them in that important statistical category.
After surrendering 79 points in the first two games against East Carolina and Georgia, the Gamecocks have clamped down in that department by yielding just 40 points (13.3 points per game) over the last three games, rising to ninth in the SEC in scoring defense (23.8 ppg).
Johnson, though, isn't prepared to put this defense into the 'elite' category yet, even though the Gamecocks have received outstanding individual performances by Ingram, Allen and a few others.
"I don't think anybody in this building is using the word 'elite' right now," Johnson said. "We have a lot of things we need to get better on. We made some mental mistakes. We're covering up a lot of those right now with physical play and great effort. I'm very proud of our players. They gave us a chance to win, but there were some critical plays at critical times where we had a mental error or something.
"It could have been something we worked on that we didn't do well. We have plenty to work on to get better. Right now, we're just an above average group with a few good playmakers. If we come to practice with the right attitude and come to the ballpark with a chip on our shoulder, we can win ballgames. But if we think we're going to do it any other way, we'll be sad."
Because the defense is still a work in progress in Johnson's view, he is not concerned about his unit getting discouraged about trying to make up for the offense's lack of production (19.3 ppg in last three games), and he doesn't want his players focused on that either.
"Unless we have a problem, we don't address issues like that," Johnson said. "I don't think our players have that attitude. If they ever do, we'll get that fixed. We're not playing well enough on defense that we need to be worried about somebody else's backyard. We have plenty to work on."
After finishing near the bottom of the SEC rankings in pass defense a year ago, the Gamecocks now lead the conference in that category through five weeks, allowing 150.8 yards per game, 91.1 yards fewer than last season when they were 10th, ahead of only Ole Miss and Auburn.
But since the opening two games, they haven't faced a prolific passing team. In the second half of the 2011 campaign, the USC secondary will be tested by four of the top six passing offenses in the SEC after five weeks - Arkansas (351.8 passing yards per game), Tennessee (336.5), Florida (203.6) and Mississippi State (199.2).
Against Auburn, USC collected four interceptions, two by C.C. Whitlock, one of which was fumbled back to the Tigers. But he redeemed himself shortly thereafter with a leaping interception in the end zone.
"You have to give him a lot of credit for bouncing back and making what I thought was an unbelievable play," Johnson said. "But at the same time, if you take care of the football you wipe off about six or seven plays off the board in the second half that were causing all the fatigue. We had opportunities to get off the field defensively had we executed. We must get better at that."
What's the best ointment for soothing any concerns about the USC defense coming off a loss? The Kentucky offense.
USC and Kentucky meet Saturday at 12:20 p.m. (SEC Network) at Williams-Brice Stadium.
After five games, Kentucky is 118th in the country in total offense (255.6 ypg), meaning only two schools (Florida Atlantic and Kent State) have worse offenses in terms of total yardage. Kentucky is also 113th in passing offense (139.4 ypg) and 94th in rushing offense (116.2 ypg).
The Wildcats managed just 155 yards of total offense in a 35-7 loss to LSU on Saturday, averaging 2.4 yards per play.
Kentucky is averaging 15.0 points per game, last in the SEC. The Wildcats are last (scoring, total offense) or 11th (rushing, passing) in the SEC in all four of the major offensive categories.
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