South Carolina football: Can the Gamecocks regain their focus against Notre Dame?
At practice in Jacksonville, Fla., this week for Friday’s Gator Bowl matchup against 21st-ranked Notre Dame (8-4), one could easily anticipate that the focus will be how 19th-ranked South Carolina (8-4) devises a game plan and keeps its late-season momentum.
Instead, the underlying current for the Gamecocks is the future of many significant players on their roster.
You might need a roster to see who is in the lineup for the 3:30 p.m. kickoff at TIAA Field.
Once viewed as the perfect ending to South Carolina’s revitalized season, the Gator Bowl has suddenly lost its luster for the Gamecocks, who beat North Carolina, 38-21, in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl last season.
South Carolina starting running back MarShawn Lloyd, tight end/running back Jaheim Bell and tight end Austin Stogner announced that they have entered the transfer portal.
Lloyd, a redshirt sophomore, is the Gamecocks’ leading rusher with 573 yards, and he has scored 9 touchdowns. Bell, a junior, had emerged as a dual threat with 231 yards receiving and 261 rushing. Stogner caught 20 passes for 210 yards with 1 touchdown.
Defensively, cornerbacks Cam Smith and Darius Rush and defensive end Zacch Pickens won’t participate in the Gator Bowl because they have announced their intentions to enter the NFL Draft. Sophomore edge rusher Gilber Edmond has entered the transfer portal.
They all were integral pieces in helping the Gamecocks reach above the cusp of a mediocre 5-3 season to win 3 of their last 4 — downing then-No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson — to finish 8-4. It was the 1st time since 2017 that South Carolina had won as many as 8 games during the regular season.
At practice on Tuesday, wide receivers Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr. and Dakereon Joyner both discussed the possibilities of finding a new home next year, primarily through the Draft or via the transfer portal.
After 2 seasons at James Madison, Wells emerged as a major playmaker and deep threat for the Gamecocks, as he caught a team-high 63 balls for 898 yards. He was 2nd in the SEC in yards receiving to Biletnikoff Award winner Jaylin Hyatt of Tennessee. Wells had 4 games in which he registered 110 yards, and he had a combined 20 receptions for 308 yards with 1 touchdown against Tennessee and Clemson.
Wells is evaluating the situation, stating that he is waiting to see who “my quarterback is and what kind of recruits we get in. There are a few other things, but I definitely want to see who my quarterback is.”
That also has been a point of contention surrounding current starting signal caller Spencer Rattler, a junior who has hinted that he may leave the Columbia confines for the apparent green pastures of the NFL.
As everyone has seen, there have been plenty of subplots involving head coach Shane Beamer and his Gamecocks.
And it will be interesting to see if they can maintain their focus on Notre Dame.
As it has all season, the spotlight will be on Rattler, who may have his final audition before stepping onto the bigger stage. He has completed 235 of 352 passes for 2,780 yards with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Against Tennessee and Clemson, Rattler completed a combined 55 of 76 attempts for 798 yards with 8 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
He again will look to Wells and Joyner. Fellow receivers and seniors Josh Vann and Jalen Brooks will miss the game due to injuries. Seniors Ahmarean Brown and Xavier Legette also could be in the mix.
Sophomore Juju McDowell (191 yards, 2 touchdowns) will take Lloyd’s spot, and senior Christian Beal-Smith (148 yards, 5 touchdowns) is back after a nagging foot injury. McDowell’s scatback speed and Beal-Smith’s plow style can be a perfect complement.
On the other side of the ball, freshmen safety Nick Emmanwori was the team’s leading tackler with 78 stops, and linebackers Sherrod Greene (60 tackles) and Jordan Burch (56 tackles) also were steady contributors. Sixth-year senior linebacker Brad Johnson will culminate a stellar career.
As for Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish rebounded after an 0-2 start, though they are coming off a 38-27 loss to No. 6 Southern Cal after they posted a 5-game winning streak.
Sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne has been a major reason for their comeback. He threw for 318 yards with 3 touchdowns against USC, and he has thrown for 2,021 yards with 22 touchdowns and 6 interceptions this season.
But Pyne has bolted for the transfer portal, and fellow sophomore Tyler Buchner, who went down with a shoulder injury in the 2nd game of the season, will get the nod. Buchner struggled and had 2 interceptions without a touchdown.
Junior tight end Michael Mayer had been Notre Dame’s main target with 67 receptions for 809 yards and 9 touchdowns. But Mayer decided to take his game to the NFL.
Notre Dame will rely on its running game, which has netted 183 yards per game and amassed nearly 2,000 for the season. Sophomore Audric Estime is the top back from a consistent 4-back rotation, with 825 yards and 11 touchdowns.
So the Gamecocks will have most of their pieces in place despite missing some major players on the board. It can truly be a chess match against the Fighting Irish, who will have their character in question after they were handled by USC.
It will come down to whether Rattler can keep his groove from his past 2 games, and whether Notre Dame’s running game can keep churning its wheels. This will also come down to what defense will break down first.
Somehow, I see Rattler keeping his touch and giving the South Carolina faithful — who will fill the majority of the 67,814 at TIAA Field — a season sendoff as well as a teaser for the NFL with a 4-touchdown, 300-yard-plus performance.
Look for the Gamecocks’ magic to continue in a 28-27 thriller.