With 2:37 left in Saturday’s game and Missouri fresh off a three-and-out, coach Eliah Drinkwitz hopped on the headset of his interim defensive coordinator, David Gibbs.
“Sorry coach,” he told Gibbs in response to the last drive.
Still a one-score game with more than two minutes left, South Carolina had a chance to drive and seal either a win or overtime. Both unideal considering the Tigers’ 17-point halftime lead.
Gibbs, serving as interim defensive coordinator in place of Ryan Walters, was quick to assure his head coach.
“Don’t worry about it,” Gibbs said. “We’re gonna get a turnover right here.”
Eight plays later, Missouri linebacker Devin Nicholson picked off South Carolina quarterback Nick Doty over the middle of the field, returning the ball eight yards before sliding and sealing a 17-10 win over the Gamecocks.
Nicholson’s interception was indicative of the night for Missouri’s defense, as the unit relied on usual suspects and emerging names to pull out Saturday’s win. The defense was without Walters and seven players listed on its two-deep depth chart due to contact tracing.
Between Walters and the missing names on defense, Drinkwitz said he knew all week his program would be short-staffed.
“I think we only flew 65 guys down here,” Drinkwitz said. “They give you 70, but we only brought 65 and so we’re running low. But we felt like it was important to give our guys an opportunity to play.”
Drinkwitz also said postgame that Walters is expected to be out of quarantine on Monday, so the team had known it’d be without him Saturday for about two weeks. Still, he commended Gibbs, who was awarded with the game ball for the win.
“He did a great job of just staying calm, calling the defense,” Drinkwitz said. ... “I thought he dialed up some great pressures, mixed up zone and man. Crud, he held them to 10 points. He did everything good.”
As a unit, the defense put on its best display in the first half, holding the Gamecocks to just 68 total yards. They averaged just 2.3 yards per play heading into the locker room.
Another big part of Saturday’s gameplan, linebacker Nick Bolton said, was to shut down Kevin Harris. The sophomore running back, who had 243 rushing yards against Mississippi a week ago, had just 33 rushing yards at the half. He finished with 58 yards.
“Most of his runs come from going off off the edge of the defense from soft edges and so we made it a premium that we weren’t going to allow him to do that,” Bolton said.
Bolton was once again Missouri’s standout in terms of individual on-field performances. He finished the night with 14 tackles and two tackles for loss.
“The guy’s fast, pretty much,” South Carolina offensive lineman Sadarius Hutcherson said of Bolton. “I mean, the guy’s super fast and that’s kind of hard to simulate through the week with a guy like that. The guy’s really talented and there’s not much more you can say about that.”
Although Bolton is the usual focal point of the defense, he had a lot of help Saturday — and that was with the absence of Trajan Jeffcoat, Kobie Whiteside, Markell Utsey, Adam Sparks, Stacy Brown, Ish Burdine and more.
Most notably, safety Martez Manuel had another standout performance. He had five tackles, 1½ sacks, 1½ tackles for loss and a pass breakup. Safety Tyree Gillespie also had a solid performance, finishing with seven tackles.
The rest of the unit’s performances came in flashes. As a whole, the defensive line had four tackles for loss. Freshman cornerback Ennis Rakestraw added to that total, too, with one of his own, as well as his first career sack.
Beyond the game-sealing interception, Nicholson had a dependable night, too. He recorded five tackles, half a sack and a quarterback hit. And he was Missouri’s lone defender to don the turnover robe, which he kept on for postgame handshakes — and possibly some time afterwards, too.
“The last time I saw Devin,” Drinkwitz said, “he was running around with the turnover robe.”