South Carolina's defense has been playing much better since Arkansas fricasseed it three weeks ago.
It's banged up, but it looks as if it will at least have the same personnel that has been playing well for another game.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said after Monday's practice that he expected Stephon Gilmore to play at Clemson on Saturday, after Gilmore sustained a slight concussion in last week's win over Troy. Backup spur Damario Jeffery should also be fine after bruising his thigh, while cornerback Marty Markett is day-to-day with a sprained right MCL.
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A key to the defense's improvement has been the secondary, which has substantially improved by taking advantage of the opposing offenses' particulars. When Gilmore and Markett went down against Troy, the group (which already lost Chris Culliver to a season-ending pectoral tear) was thin enough to slip through a needle's eye.
But Gilmore was jogging normally on Monday, coach Steve Spurrier saying on his radio show that Gilmore may miss a couple days of practice but should be fine, and Markett was only wearing a knee brace. He seemed to be walking normally as well, which would be good news for a corps that has re-discovered its confidence.
"Stephon's still going through tests," Ward said. "I think he's doing well, so I expect him to play. Marty will be day-to-day. He's better today than he was yesterday. Hopefully he'll keep improving and if he does, he'll be ready to play also."
Behind Gilmore and Markett are C.C. Whitlock and Brandan Davis, with safety Akeem Auguste able to slide over if need be. Whitlock has played a good bit but has often been out-classed in coverage, while Davis has been a special-teams stalwart but hardly called on to play defense.
Davis said he would be ready if asked, and mentioned that his right hand, which has been in a club cast for three weeks, was re-fitted with a smaller cast that allows him to grab much easier. "I've been patiently waiting, and if my time comes, I'll be ready to get out there," he said.
USC (8-3) is hoping that whoever plays will be able to duplicate the previous success. Florida was not a downfield passing team, allowing the Gamecocks to stay close to the line and wrap up runners, while Troy could throw downfield but hardly dared to, especially after D.J. Swearinger returned a pick-six before halftime.
Clemson (6-5) is similar to the Gators in offensive approach. The Tigers don't have a consistent downfield threat -- although freshman DeAndre Hopkins is certainly a rising star -- and like to work side-to-side. Quarterback Kyle Parker has not been great at moving up in the pocket under pressure, often running to the edges and trying to throw, and that has led to a few interceptions.
USC can definitely exploit the edge, rushing Devin Taylor or Cliff Matthews and also taking advantage of the rapid improvement of spur Antonio Allen. They will have to keep an eye on fullback Jamie Harper, who is deadly at catching a short pass in the middle of the field and churning for a large gain, but the Gamecocks' deep coverage team may get a lot of time to relax.
May get. Ward surely wasn't thinking the Tigers will just sit back and play in to USC's hands.
"I think they'll throw it downfield on us," Ward said. "This is a big ballgame for Clemson. If they beat us, they feel like they've had a decent season. Not what they wanted, but if you can beat your in-state rival, then you've done something."
Markett sprained his MCL on a kickoff return against Troy, when a low block knocked him forward onto his knee. He was fine for the game but woke up on Sunday with it hurting; Ward said the MRI didn't show any structural damage but it was a pretty good twist.
Still, Markett wants to play and feels he can. The recent play has energized him and his teammates, and they feel they can stop Clemson if it begins playing for the sidelines.
"We're pretty fast on defense," he said. "We'll be able to handle that."
Davis will play on special teams, but really wants to play on defense. He has a plan for stepping his game up against the rival Tigers.
"Rivalry tackling," he said. "Rivalry tackling, sir."
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