COLUMBIA - South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore grinned when asked about the Gamecocks defense. He couldn't have imagined a much better way to finish his career.
Their improved defense helped power the Gamecocks (7-3) to their first winning Southeastern Conference mark in four years at 5-3 . They close the regular season with FCS opponent Wofford before playing state rival - and defending national champion - Clemson.
Moore is part of a unit that's allowed 50 fewer yards per game and a touchdown less this year than in 2016. And they're poised to reach eight wins since the last of three consecutive 11-2 seasons in 2013.
"It feels good ending on this note," said Moore, a senior who missed last year after neck fusion surgery. "This team is special. I'm glad I came back."
The Gamecocks have won four of their past five games and will finish no worse than second in the SEC Eastern Division. They'll try and finish strongly, starting with Wofford (9-1) who has clinched the Southern Conference's automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs.
Quarterback Jake Bentley said the team's sole focus is on the option-attack and stingy defense of Wofford. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp emphasized that point with the team this week about not peeking ahead to the matchup with the Tigers.
Muschamp "didn't want to hear a word about next week or what was involved next week," Bentley said Tuesday.
Most of South Carolina's older players know better than to make that mistake, remembering their embarrassing 23-22 loss to Southern Conference member to Citadel as the low point of a disastrous 2015 season.
Ironically, last year's demoralizing, 56-7 loss to Clemson provided significant motivation for a maligned defense. Muschamp put the out the simple call that his team had to improve, particularly on defense, and the players complied. The Gamecocks gave up 203 yards per game on the ground a season ago, a total that's fallen to 156 this fall to rank fifth in the conference.
"You could see this during the spring," senior defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth said.
Stallworth said the mix of veterans anxious for an upward turn and talented newcomers eager to make an impact led to steady improvement throughout the season. That was evident in last week's sloppy 28-20 win over fading Florida. The Gamecocks committed four turnovers , yet held the Gators to two touchdowns.
"Two years ago, we're a 3-9 football team. The investment you made to get this point, I'm ... proud of you," Muschamp said to his players in the locker room last Saturday.
Linebacker T.J. Brunson said his group put in the work to improve, something that's showing on the field. Brunson, a sophomore, is tied with Moore for the team lead with 68 tackles. Brunson said players have bought into the schemes of Muschamp, a former defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn and Texas, and Gamecocks coordinator Travaris Robinson.
Other young players like freshman cornerback Jamyest Williams and sophomore defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum have made big contributions, too. Williams sealed the Florida win last week with his interception in the final minute to end Florida's final drive.
"We still got a lot of football left to play, so we'll reflect when the year's over," said Muschamp, who'll take the Gamecocks to a second bowl game in as many years as coach. "As far as their work ethic and as far as how they've gone about trying to improve and get better, I've been very pleased."
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