Imperfect but impactful: Stone Blanton’s TD, turnovers give USC defense more confidence

A blind squirrel finds an acorn every once in a while. It might take a few days, or even weeks, but it’ll eventually happen.

With their backs against the wall and the game on the line, South Carolina’s defense needed to find its acorn. Jacksonville State was just 24 yards away from taking its second lead of the game with only 2:16 left to play.

Stone Blanton saw Jacksonville State quarterback Zion Webb release a pass intended for Anwar Lewis.

There it was.

The sophomore linebacker ran in front of Lewis, who’d already scored a touchdown in the first half, let the ball fall into his hands and took off. He had three fellow Gamecocks protecting him as he ran along the suddenly stunned Jacksonville State. Meanwhile, those remaining from the announced crowd of 75,348 in Williams-Brice Stadium erupted.

Eighty-eight yards to the end zone. A 10-point lead.

A win — 38-28.

“It was kind of a surreal moment,” Blanton said. “I saw Debo (Williams) at the end celebrating with me.”

It had been 14 quarters of football since the Gamecocks had a turnover, the last one coming in September with Jalen Kilgore’s first career interception at Tennessee. Turnovers come in bunches, defensive coordinator Clayton White has stressed. And winning the turnover battle had been a struggle for USC throughout the season.

Four turnovers Saturday — two fumble recoveries and two interceptions — helped South Carolina cement its first win since beating Mississippi State on Sept. 30.

“We needed them today,” head coach Shane Beamer said. “I mean, that was huge.”

The timing for those four turnovers came at the most opportune moments, too. Defensive lineman Tonka Hemingway, who joined the USC offense in the first quarter and scored a rushing touchdown, had the first turnover of the game with a fumble recovery near midfield.

The Gamecocks didn’t come away with points on Hemingway’s turnover, but it was one more turnover than Jax State had. That’s winning the turnover battle.

USC’s defense hasn’t been perfect at any point this season. The Gamecocks entered Saturday ranked No. 110 of all FBS programs in passing efficiency defense. They’re young. They lost veteran players early. Most games, Blanton, Williams, Jalen Kilgore, DQ Smith and Nick Emmanwori are taking almost every snap at linebacker and safety.

That USC defense allowed 421 yards of offense Saturday, including 225 rushing yards and 10 first-down conversions. They only sacked the quarterback once.

South Carolina linebacker Stone Blanton (52) returns an interception for a touchdown during the second half of the Gamecocks’ game at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia on Saturday, November 4, 2023.
South Carolina linebacker Stone Blanton (52) returns an interception for a touchdown during the second half of the Gamecocks’ game at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia on Saturday, November 4, 2023.

“To be honest, we didn’t play good defense-wise, and we’ve got to be better,” Williams said. “We did execute some plays and we did get turnovers, so that’s good, but we’ve got to keep improving.”

But they won the turnover battle.

“When you let the other team run 84 plays for 421 yards … you’re probably not going to win,” Beamer said. “But if you win the turnover battle, you probably are and that was obviously the difference in the game today.”

Blanton, in particular, had been put through the ringer this season. He’s played over 80% of the defensive snaps this season, averaging almost five tackles per game, and he hadn’t had an interception all season

Even though he played hero ball, Blanton knew USC didn’t play the best game. As happy as the Gamecocks were to finally get a win, they allowed 28 points from 421 yards of JSU offense.

“It wasn’t our best game,” Blanton said. “We’ve still got a lot to clean up, but we’re going to remember November, so I’m trying to finish the season strong.”

They won the turnover battle. They ended the losing streak. They danced it out in the locker room afterward.

“It gives us a lot of confidence going into the next game,” Blanton said. “When people say ‘remember November,’ it’s just one game at a time.”