Published August 31, 2012 - 11:12am
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For the most part, us Gamecocks are used to less-than-stellar season openers on Steve Spurrier’s side of the ball.
It wasn’t pretty, but ninth-ranked South Carolina got it done Thursday night in Nashville. A performance deserving of a Top 10 ranking, no, but neither have the last few openers under the Head Ball Coach. Outside of Marcus Lattimore’s convincing debut in a 2010 victory over UAB, the Gamecocks never look good in the first game.
Last season, South Carolina fell behind 17-0 in Charlotte against an East Carolina squad that was out-manned at nearly every position. In 2009, Stephen Garcia and the Gamecock offense sputtered in Raleigh against N.C. State in a similar Thursday night setting, scoring a single touchdown. The previous season, South Carolina had three points — and four turnovers — by halftime against the Wolfpack.
The most important aspect of these offensive openers is that the Gamecocks, favored in each, have won every game. In fact, South Carolina hasn’t lost an opener since 1999.
Another reminder of “Don’t Panic” is in order.
If you can get past the missed pass interference call on fourth down during Vandy’s final drive, South Carolina made the essential, game-changing plays when it mattered most against the Commodores — potentially, a sign of a good football team.
Connor Shaw’s 7-yard scramble on 3rd-and-5 with a minute and change remaining was a gutsy run, as was Justice Cunningham’s ability to hold onto the ball after being clobbered helmet-to-helmet by Vandy’s Andre Hall on the previous possession. With a sore shoulder, Shaw emerged from the locker room late in the third quarter to finish with 92 yards rushing and engineered the game-winning drive with 11:25 left.
Lattimore uncharacteristically fumbled his first attempt — he also lost a fumble in last year’s opener against the Pirates — and was admittedly nervous in his first game back from an ACL tear. After that, it was vintage Marcus for the most part. Lattimore scored two touchdowns and picked up 110 yards rushing, the ninth 100-yard of his career. He made tough yards, had a nifty juke on an early 29-yard scoring scamper and lowered his shoulder like the Lattimore of old on a few zone reads.
There’s plenty of stuff to fix, however, for an offense non-existent through the air and out-of-sync for much of the contest.
Say what you want you want about the offensive line’s below average night or wide receivers slipping on the wet turf, but Shaw was clearly rattled in the pocket after that first interception. Last season’s most efficient college quarterback from November on had a miserable night throwing the football, finishing with 67 yards on seven completions.
It seemed as if every drop back following the first-quarter pick, Shaw was looking for a hole to run. That’s not a problem, as long as he can avoid injury on those kinds of plays the rest of the season, but it’s evident there isn’t much depth under center behind Shaw and Spurrier doesn’t have any confidence in other quarterbacks on roster.
The most alarming aspect of Thursday’s game was the lack of production at the receiver spot, a unit seriously downgraded following the departure of Alshon Jeffery. Ace Sanders and Damiere Byrd caught three passes for 26 yards — combined — and that was it for the wideouts. Shaw targeted D.L. Moore once downfield and threw one behind Bruce Ellington on a third-down play late in the first half.
But it’s early, these receivers have room to grow and they will.
Teams usually see their biggest improvements from Week 1 to Week 2 and that’ll be the case with South Carolina. In the past, the Gamecocks could have never won an SEC road game and played as sloppy as they did Thursday night. East Carolina, N.C. State and heck, even Louisiana-Lafayette (2006) don’t play the Gamecocks as tough as the Commodores.
For whatever reason, South Carolina-Vanderbilt games are always dogfights usually decided in the second half.
But even after going the entire third quarter with one positive yard, turning it over twice the first three plays from scrimmage and getting exposed up front offensively, the Gamecocks won the game and that’s promising for an SEC East contender.
And don’t knock Vandy, these aren’t your bottom-dwelling Commodores. James Franklin will have that team in a bowl game this season.