Down its best edge rusher, starting corner and without an assistant coach for a large part of the week, South Carolina came into the Duke's Mayo Bowl facing what many thought would be an uphill battle against the North Carolina offense.
On paper it, the North Carolina offense looked lethal with an offense ranked third-best in the ACC.
But, despite all the adversity, the Gamecocks not only found a way to win but did it riding a stingy defensive performance against a potent Tar Heel attack.
"It's just a credit to the coaches, they get us prepared week in and week out," Jaylan Foster said. "The game plan they had was good, we had two weeks to prepare and we prepared the right way those two weeks and it showed today."
The Tar Heel attack started and finished with professional prospect Sam Howell, who torched the Gamecocks in 2019, but South Carolina wasn't fooled this time around.
Coming into the game defensive back Jaylan Foster said the South Carolina defense was aware of the challenges they were going to face going up against Howell.
Despite all of it a thin Gamecock defense—especially in the secondary—stepped up and neutralized Howell and helped lead South Carolina to its first bowl win since 2017.
Howell only threw for 205 yards and one touchdown pass, his fewest against a non-conference opponent this season and the fourth fewest of the season as whole.
The Gamecock defense also held Howell to his worst rushing performance of the entire season, three yards on 13 attempts.
"He's a great quarterback, coming in we knew we had to keep him in the pocket and when he scrambled we had to get to him and get him down," Foster said. "We knew he was dangerous with his feet. "
On top of the defensive game plan, defensive end Jordan Strachan said he felt that the extra time to watch film and prep for Howell gave the Gamecocks the competitive edge.
"An advantage for us was we got to see everybody else play them so I mean you watch all the film and see where other teams make mistakes and those types of things," Strachan said. "We were able to capitalize and do what other teams didn't do that we were able to see from their mistakes this season. That helped us a lot keeping him in there."
South Carolina sacked Howell four times during the game, thanks to a combination of Jabari Ellis, Zacch Pickens, Damani Staley and Strachan.
The Gamecock defense was able to keep Howell from using his legs, holding him to a season-worst three rushing yards on the game.
North Carolina went just 1-for-10 on third downs and had just two red zone attempts and one red zone touchdown.
"We've always had the ability to take over games, it was just about the whole D-line playing complementary football," Ellis said.
Ellis said that the defensive line noticed early that they were going to play a vital role in the outcome of the game.
"I'm gonna be honest, after I wanna say about the first drive, we knew that this was going to be a defensive line game, not just a defense but a defensive line game," Ellis said. "It was like we were taking turns out there it felt amazing."
North Carolina went on its first three drives, something Ellis said sparked the defense's momentum for the rest of the game.
"It definitely was a tone setter, they came out and got a couple first down's early, I ended up getting a sack early and we got off the field," Ellis said. "That one right there got the whole energy throughout the whole sideline the offense came back out and scored and that was all she wrote after that."
Strachan, who took JJ Enagbare's spot on the defensive line, was just one of the many players that stepped up and played an increased role in the bowl game.
After the game Strachan said the way South Carolina was able to contain Howell and the Tar Heels, despite being thin at various positions, is a testament to how talented the team is.
"It shows how hard we work, no matter who's out there there's no drop off," Strachan said. "That just shows the great coaching we've got, the culture that we have and how we're able to just keep going and have each other's backs and those types of things."
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