Melvin Ingram has seen hundreds of snaps during his South Carolina career. His total experience amounts to 50 games in four years, plus a redshirt year, heading into Saturday's regular season finale against Clemson.
Though this is his first year as a starting defensive end, he led the team in sacks last season. Few have better perspective than Ingram on South Carolina's defense, and just how well it is playing right now.
"Our defense, we feel like this is our team," he said. "We feel like we're going to put the team on our back. We feel like the team goes as far as we go."
He and the defense will have a chance to prove that Saturday against one of college football's most prolific and frenetic offenses. The Tigers rank No. 17 nationally in yards (465.3), No. 21 in points (35.1) and No. 21 in plays of 20-plus yards (58). Their fast-paced, spread-the-field offense is designed to wear out defenders and make them tackle quick players in open space. Just five teams in the nation have run more plays this season than Clemson.
But this should be a fascinating game because the Tigers haven't faced a defense as highly rated as South Carolina's, though the Gamecocks are nursing injuries to three of their four primary linebackers along with disruptive end Jadeveon Clowney. The Gamecocks won most of their games with defense this season by allowing 279.5 yards per game, fewer than all but four teams in the country, and 19.4 points, which ranks No. 15. South Carolina's 28 plays of 20-plus yards allowed are the nation's fifth-fewest.
The Gamecocks (9-2) lost one game this year because of their defense, 44-28 at Arkansas, which gained 435 yards and kept South Carolina out of the Southeastern Conference title game. Saturday is another opportunity for the Gamecocks to show it can limit a great offense when it matters most.
"This is a big opportunity for us," said linebacker Rodney Paulk. "We have a chance for redemption, to show how good we really are on defense. Arkansas really exploited us a lot. We plan on just proving to the world, to the nation, to our fans that we are capable of stopping a prolific offense."
Auburn runs an offense similar to Clemson. South Carolina lost 16-13 earlier this season to Auburn, which gained 358 yards, but needed 92 plays to do it. Auburn won the time of possession by 111/2 minutes, something the Gamecocks need to avoid Saturday.
But Auburn scored just two touchdowns on five red-zone chances -- typical of South Carolina's red-zone defense this season. The Gamecocks allowed nine touchdowns on opponents' 12 red-zone chances in the first three games. Since then, only nine touchdowns on 24 red-zone chances. The Gamecocks held Mississippi State to 1 of 2 and won 14-12, held Tennessee to 0 of 2 and won 14-3, and held Florida to 1 of 3 and won 17-12.
If South Carolina wants to limit Clemson to a touchdown or two, it would be wise to watch what Virginia Tech and North Carolina State did against the Tigers. Clemson beat Tech, 23-3, but gained just 323 yards. The Tigers lost to N.C. State (but didn't have top receiver Sammy Watkins) and gained 337 yards. They gained at least 399 in every other game this year, often fooling defenses with their misdirection plays.
Paulk noticed while watching film that N.C. State "played assignment football." That is critical against Clemson. Each defender needs to worry only about his responsibility on a play and not be overly eager to help a teammate. That's how the Tigers get defenders to take the bait on their misdirection plays, and how they get their best players in open space.
"You've got to trust (that) the person beside you is going to do their assignment," Ingram said.
To hear Ingram tell it, the Gamecocks are better-equipped to do that than their predecessors.
"This defense here, we have a lot more accountability," he said. "Prior defenses, we didn't have accountability. But now, we're counting on ourselves to be in the right assignment, make plays."