COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jonathan Walton had an idea that the South Carolina defense would have a small margin for error this season. Through four games, it might be even smaller than expected with an offense averaging just 14.3 points per game.
But the South Carolina defense already has a fine line set with a weekly goal of allowing no more than 16 points.
“In our minds, it should be zero,” Walton said. “But it’s 16. That’s the goal.”
Coach Will Muschamp established the 16-point mark as an item on the weekly goal sheet for the Gamecocks. He said the number comes from looking at where the top defenses rank in college football each season.
In years past, Muschamp set the bar at 13 points or less per game. His 2003 LSU defense met that, averaging 11.2 points allowed per game, and won the national title. Muschamp has bumped up the goal to allowing no more than 16 points in recent seasons with offenses changing to the spread, having more snaps and opportunities to score.
“If you think in terms of holding people to field goals in the red zone, maybe giving up one touchdown, that’s probably 16, 17 points,” Muschamp said. “That’s probably, in today’s day and age, a pretty good goal.”
South Carolina has been close to meeting that goal this season. It is allowing 17.3 points per game, good for fifth in the SEC. Mississippi State scored the most on USC with 27 points, while the Gamecocks held their other three opponents to 17 points or less.
The stiffest test to date comes Saturday with No. 9 Texas A&M’s high-powered offense coming to Columbia (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
“We are very critical of ourselves,” linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “We don’t want to give up any points. Regardless of what our offense is doing, we have to limit people from scoring points at all. That’s just something that we have to continuously improve on and I think we are making strides on that.”
Allen-Williams said the goal of allowing 16 points or less is strictly a defensive goal and it comes down to “a pride thing.” Muschamp also specified it is about the defense and not tied into South Carolina’s offensive struggles.
But with an offensive unit that is tied for the fewest touchdowns in the nation with 6, there is an obvious feeling that the defense can’t allow many points if it wants to win.
“Even if they were scoring a lot, I feel like it’s always a small margin for error,” safety Chris Moody said. “We don’t want to give up too many points. I prefer not to let them score at all.”
Players on the defensive side, including Allen-Williams and Walton, are confident if they can hold teams to less than 16 points that the offense is going to reach a place where they are scoring upward of 17 points. It has done so just once this season, scoring 20 in a win against East Carolina.
“They’re not giving up that many points at all,” wide receiver Terry Googer said. “It is our job to put points on the board. Once we start doing that, the sky is the limit for this team.”
Instead of offensive struggles turning into frustration, the Gamecocks defenders are focused on what they can do to be a better unit and to increase the margin for error. It’s their responsibility, Allen-Williams said, to make the stops to win the game. He pointed to South Carolina giving up a 7-3 lead at Kentucky and losing 17-10.
The junior stressed more physicality from the defensive line to the safeties and being gap-sound as areas of improvement.
But when it comes to going into a game seeking to allow 16 points or less, Allen-Williams said it’s not hard to focus on because that is the way the Gamecocks practice and bring intensity daily.
“I feel like we’ve done a good job,” he said, “but we have to do better.”