South Carolina football: It was a special teams' night in 35-14 victory
South Carolina’s opening-night 35-14 victory Saturday over Georgia State at Williams-Brice Stadium certainly was predictable, but the route there certainly wasn’t.
The Gamecocks relied on their special teams to ease their struggles early, then to close it out. Two blocked punts returned for touchdowns made the difference and helped them keep and regain the momentum.
Spencer Rattler made his much-anticipated debut, and he showed enough flash to provide promise for the USC faithful. Rattler was a bit sluggish in the beginning, but he showed the tenacity needed down the stretch to project a solid season.
South Carolina’s defense bent, but it didn’t break. Georgia State’s touted running game accumulated 200 yards, but the Gamecocks’ pressure and pursuit made Panthers quarterback Darren Grainger uncomfortable with his 7-for-29, 111-yard, 1-interception performance.
Overall, it was an unveiling worthy of a share of applause. But the Gamecocks will be back at the drawing board for some issues — such as the offensive line — before they tangle with Arkansas next week.
Here are some grades and thoughts, starting with the good ones:
Special teams: A+
This was the area that arguably saved the night for USC. For the 1st time since 2000, the Gamecocks returned a blocked punt for a touchdown. Then they followed it with another to seal the win.
DQ Smith’s return of Rashad Amos’ blocked punt helped break open a 20-14 game with 7:20 left in the 3rd quarter.
At the start of the 4th, Ahmarean Brown returned another blocked punt for a score after Traevon Kenion did the damage.
Mitch Jeter made his debut and boomed field goals of 51 and 53 yards, becoming the 1st South Carolina kicker to convert 2 field goals of 50-plus yards in a game.
Punter Kai Kroeger also had a big night, averaging 48.5 on 7 kicks, and he booted a 79-yard punt. Josh Vann returned 3 punts for 33 yards, one an 18-yard scoot.
Finally, the Gamecocks had a game-changer in the opening half when long snapper Hunter Rogers took off on a 5-yard scamper on a field-goal attempt. That led to a 1st down and eventual score by running back MarShawn Lloyd a few plays later.
“We spend a lot of time with our special teams,” said USC head coach Shane Beamer. “They had a big night that really helped us.”
Spencer Rattler: B+
Rattler was 15-of-24 of 147 yards in the opening half, but he was under consistent pressure from the Georgia State front that resulted in some overthrows. However, he did miss some of his 8 different receivers, and the Gamecocks were 1-for-8 on 3rd-down conversions in the opening half
At the start of the 2nd half, Rattler threw an interception, and he looked like he might unravel. However, he regained his composure and pieced together an impressive 9-play, 75-yard march that resulted in a 16-yard swing pass for a score to Lloyd that put the Gamecocks back on top at 20-14.
Rattler did throw a bad interception on the next drive as he tried to force a ball downfield and didn’t hit a receiver nearby. The junior ended the night going 23-for-27 for 227 yards, and he appeared more in sync after hafltime, completing 8 of 11 passes for 80 yards.
Running game: B
The running game showed some spark, but they it have a breakout runner.
Lloyd came into the game as the team’s lead back, and he ran hard and well at times. He finished with 30 yards on 11 carries.
The real surprise was tight end Jaheim Bell, who proved to be an effective weapon out of the backfield. Bell had 39 yards on 7 carries, highlighted by a 13-yard gallop.
The average and below:
The Gamecocks had trouble containing the Panthers’ running game, especially early. They did make a key stop on Georgia State’s opening drive, when they prevented a potential touchdown on an attempted 4th-down play from their 5-yard line.
They kept Georgia State’s running game bottled up for most of the night. The key to their success was their constant pressure on Georgia State’s quarterback, and they registered 6 hurries. However, they were flagged for 2 pass interference penalties, and they easily could have been for a few others.
Marcellas Dial had a late 4th-quarter interception.
Offensive line: C
This was one of the biggest off-season concerns, but the unit was expected to bounce back after an adequate season last year.
Rattler was under pressure most of the 1st half, and he was the victim of 3 sacks. He had a 15-yard run in the opening half, but it was called back on a holding call by Jovaughn Gwyn. The Gamecocks tried to get their running game going in the opening half, but they were held to 38 yards.
The line was more efficient in the 2nd half, as it helped grind some time off the clock on drives.