South Carolina seeking strong defensive finish
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt hasn't let go of South Carolina's disappointing season and is eager for the Gamecocks to make one, final statement in their bowl game.
The Gamecocks (6-6) will face Miami (6-6) in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana on Dec. 27. Surratt said it's a chance to show the program's once-dominant defense can find that performance level again.
Surratt was the lone returning starter on a defensive line that made South Carolina one of the Southeastern Conference's leading defenses from 2011-2013. This year, the Gamecocks were 13th in yards allowed in the 14-team SEC.
South Carolina had memorable fourth-quarter meltdowns to lose games against Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee to finish 3-5 in the SEC.
It wasn't what Surratt envisioned for his final season.
''Some of us hold onto the little grudges and losses a little more than others,'' Surratt said. ''But everybody just loves the game of football and is ready to get ready for the next one.''
South Carolina is looking to avoid its first losing season since the second of consecutive 5-7 marks under Lou Holtz in 2003.
''The next game is definitely that chance for us to make up for the last game,'' Surratt said. ''Our goal is try and get a W against Miami.''
The Gamecocks were expected to be training for a much bigger bowl than this, voted as the likely winner of the SEC Eastern Division. Instead, losing five defensive starters from last year including No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney proved too much to overcome.
The proof came early when Texas A&M posted a 52-28 opening-game win as South Carolina gave up a program worst 680 yards of offense.
The collapses against Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee - all coming after the Gamecocks held a double-digit lead in the final period - heightened the offensive problems. Things bottomed out three weeks ago in a 35-17 loss to rival Clemson as the Tigers rolled up 491 yards including 225 on the ground.
''We were just young and it was a learning experience for us,'' Surratt said. ''I feel us older guys could've done better teaching these young guys and getting them ready.''
Surratt and other South Carolina veterans say that's the goal of these bowl practices. Linebacker Sharrod Golighty said older players showed enthusiasm and spirit in their return to the field.
''Growing pains throughout the season, but a big opportunity in the bowl game,'' he said. ''Big opportunity against Miami. We're trying to take advantage of it.''
Defensive line coach Deke Adams was not concerned about his players' attitudes after the regular-season, knowing they'd put the problems behind them in preparing for the Hurricanes.
''There are no quitters in this group,'' he said. ''The guys have showed up. They've worked hard. Everybody is disappointed in the outcome of how things have happened this year, but these kids are coming out here working and trying to get better every day.''
It hasn't been easy.
South Carolina fans have been vocal on local sports shows and social media about their anger over this year's defense. Some supporters stirred up speculation that fired Florida coach Will Muschamp was the perfect answer to restore the group's edge. Head coach Steve Spurrier said the team never made an offer to Muschamp, although the two friends talked after the dismissal from the Gators.
Muschamp took a defensive coordinator spot with Auburn.
Spurrier has said he'll wait until after the bowl game to see if any staff shuffling is called for. But Spurrier has constantly said his defensive coaches are the same ones who had the Gamecocks on top during a 33-6 stretch the previous three years.
Adams said he, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and the rest of the defensive staff have tuned out the noise and are concentrating on their jobs.
''We're all professionals,'' he said. ''We're going to stay focused on our task at hand.''