COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Jon Hoke knows his South Carolina defense has much more to prove despite their promising start last week.
The Gamecocks co-defensive coordinator was brought on by coach Steve Spurrier this past February to turn around a defense that had sunk near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference last season.
South Carolina was last in the SEC with 14 sacks and 12th in the 14-team conference with 19 turnovers a year ago. Both areas showed improvement in the Gamecocks’ 17-13 victory over North Carolina last week.
South Carolina picked up four sacks and three interceptions, two of those in the end zone to choke off North Carolina scoring chances.
Hoke wants things to pick up even more Saturday night when the Gamecocks (1-0) open SEC play against Kentucky (1-0).
“We were happy to win. We were happy with the takeaways. But we need to play better,” said Hoke, Spurrier’s former defensive coordinator at Florida who spent the past 13 years as an NFL assistant before rejoining the head ball coach.
Hoke was disappointed with his group’s play against the run as North Carolina gained 208 yards on the ground. Hoke thought bad tackling techniques led to too many big gains.
“We worked on it a lot, so I thought we would be better, a little more consistent,” Hoke said.
Stopping the run will be critical against the Wildcats, who gained 178 yards rushing in a 40-33 opening win over Louisiana-Lafayette last week. A season ago, Kentucky ran for 208 yards against the Gamecocks, including 115 in the final 12 minutes to rally from two touchdowns behind for a 45-38 victory.
Kentucky dealt with a near collapse of its own last week, coughing up a 33-10 lead before escaping with victory.
Wildcats defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said his team is trying to eliminate the big play. “That’s one thing from last year that we’ve got to get better at,” he said.
Things to watch for when Kentucky plays South Carolina:
SOUTH CAROLINA OFFENSE: The Gamecocks struggled on offense in the opener, particularly in the passing game - something Steve Spurrier hates. The problem is a first-time quarterback in Connor Mitch along with several first-time receivers unfamiliar with the college game. Spurrier said he hopes to get ball downfield more against Kentucky.
SEC ROAD: Kentucky has not won an SEC road game since 2009, a stretch of 20 consecutive games. The Wildcats last road success was six seasons ago when they won at Georgia 34-27 to close the SEC season. They were 3-1 on the road in league play that season before the long losing streak began.
KENTUCKY QB: Wildcats passer Patrick Towles had vastly different halves last week against Louisiana-Lafayette. He was 10 of 18 for 219 yards and two touchdowns as Kentucky opened up a 24-7 lead. Towles was 6 of 16 for 38 yards and a TD as Louisiana-Lafayette rallied back. Kentucky is looking for a more consistent performance.
SPURRIER vs. KENTUCKY: The Wildcats had once been merely a speed bump for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who was 17-0 against them in 12 seasons at Florida and his first five seasons with the Gamecocks. But Kentucky has won two of the past five matchups against Spurrier including last year’s contest. The Wildcats have not won at South Carolina since 1999.
SPRUCED UP STADIUM: South Carolina will show off $14.5 million worth of improvements to Williams-Brice Stadium in its home opener. Designers eliminated the tarmac around the stadium where fans would park, replacing it with walkways and landscaped greenery. There will also be a statue of 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers.
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