When matters went haywire on the defensive side of the football at South Carolina last season, Steve Spurrier sent out the bat signal for an old friend of the Head Ball Coach. Jon Hoke had been a defensive coordinator in the Gainesville glory days. Spurrier is hoping for some positive nostalgia in Columbia.
So far, so good. As Kentucky travels to South Carolina on Saturday, the host Gamecocks are coming off a better defensive showing in last Thursday's 17-13 win over border rival North Carolina in Charlotte. True, South Carolina allowed 440 yards — 11th out of 13 active SEC teams last weekend — but the Gamecocks gave up just 13 points.
Linebacker Skai Moore captured SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors thanks to a pair of end zone interceptions, the second coming with 3:29 remaining and basically saving the Gamecocks' bacon.
And remember it was South Carolina's loss last season at Kentucky which began sewing the seeds of doubt about defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Kentucky discovered success with Jojo Kemp running out of the wildcat formation. So Neal Brown, UK's offensive coordinator last season, kept running it and running it and running it. Ward never never figured out a way to stop it.
By game's end, Kentucky had rushed for a season-high 239 yards and claimed a 45-38 win. It was UK's highest rushing total in an SEC game since gashing lowly Vanderbilt for 341 in 2010. It was the most rushing yards by a UK team against South Carolina since 310 in 1995 when Brad Scott was the Gamecocks' coach.
Unfortunately for Spurrier, the UK game wasn't an aberration. After allowing 18.4 points per game in 2011, 18.2 in 2012 and 20.3 in 2013, South Carolina allowed 30.4 points per game in 2014. It plummeted to 92nd nationally in total defense, surrendering 432.7 yards per game. It lost three games in which it blew two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter — one being at Commonwealth Stadium when Kentucky scored 21 points in the final 8:06.
So at the end of a 7-6 season, Coach Superior decided Ward needed help. He summoned the 58-year-old Hoke, older brother of former Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Jon Hoke was Spurrier's last defensive coordinator at Florida before Spurrier's lamentable 2002 decision to leave the Gators for the NFL's Washington Redskins. Hoke also went the professional route, spending 13 seasons as defensive backs coach with first Houston (2002-08) and then Chicago (2009-14).
In fact, it was Hoke whom Spurrier hired to follow a fellow named Bob Stoops as Florida's defensive coordinator when Bob became head coach at Oklahoma in 1999. Thus Mark Stoops knows his brother's successor well.
"Jon's a very good football coach, good guy, good coach, been around a long time," the Kentucky coach said Monday. "He's got a lot of experience and I think he's just like you would want in any great defensive coordinator. I think he's tough and he's very sound in what he does. You're not going to get a lot of easy things, not going to get things given to you. You're going to have to earn them. And he'll limit big plays better than (Lafayette) did this past week."
North Carolina did rip off four runs of 20-plus yards and complete a pass for 40 yards last Thursday. (There might have been more of those had UNC Coach Larry Fedora made better use of running back Elijah Hood, who gained 138 yards on 12 carries but was amazingly on the bench for the final part of North Carolina's final drive.)
The closer the Tar Heels got to the goal line, however, the tougher the sledding. Five different possessions North Carolina was at or inside the USC 30-yard-line. It managed just one touchdown and two field goals.
"The football gods smiled on the Gamecocks tonight," Spurrier said afterward.
He hopes they're still smiling Saturday night.