South Carolina football: Bad bounce or same old trend? Gamecocks now must change narrative
Is this the same old Gamecocks? That argument could certainly be made. But South Carolina also repeatedly put themselves back in the game during Saturday’s 31-27 loss to Tennessee, and they had multiple chances to pull off the mild upset. Now the question becomes: Can the Gamecocks close the gap of deficiencies shown against Tennessee and keep fighting for a breakthrough?
Colorado State transfer QB Collin Hill certainly established himself as a reliable starter, and he showed a consistent connection with WR Shi Smith. A would-be big-play pass to Nick Muse deflected off Muse’s hands on the drive that ended with a final field goal. And the tough final break of a turnover on a punt return was certainly a mental or communication breakdown.
However, there was certainly potential to build on.
One trademark of Will Muschamp teams is that they seem to keep the fight in them even when the chips are down. That’s why Hill fits well in this program. After the game, he said the Gamecocks continued to fight, and all of their goals are ahead of them. Don’t forget Smith’s chirping with the Tennessee defenders in the second half. Hill also took 4 sacks, but he said he didn’t think about his knee at all, even though he has had three ACL surgeries.
Smith showed he can be a No. 1 receiver even when the likes of Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards aren’t around anymore. He had little receiving help but still somehow caught 10 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown. On defense, Kingsley Enagbare emerged to deliver 9 tackles and 2 sacks.
The Gamecocks had only one 3rd down on an opening drive that traveled 75 yards in 11 plays. Then, they immediately answered Tennessee’s early second-half touchdown with a score of their own, on another 75-yard drive that took just 4 plays. Tennessee, despite its experienced QB in Jarrett Guarantano, was just 1-for-11 on third downs.
Turnovers and a lack of a consistent running game, though, were the biggest barriers to victory.
Veteran play-caller Mike Bobo showed what many expected in the second half with more play-action, and on the field goal drive in the third quarter, Bobo had the Vols defense on roller skates by using Kevin Harris and Deshaun Fenwick off the right side of the offensive line.
Bobo aside, the main coaching question or criticism after the game was whether Muschamp was too conservative in settling for a field goal late.
“We would have gone for it if it was less than 12 yards to go,” Muschamp said of kicking the field goal on fourth-and-12. Trailing 31-24 with 3 minutes to go and choosing to kick likely spoke to Muschamp’s confidence in the team’s defense.
Remember, the main change from last season is the revamped offense, with new faces at almost every position, on the roster and on the coaching staff. The Gamecocks last year averaged 19.9 points per SEC game, and on Saturday, they produced 27. What’s more, the Gamecocks were shut out in the second half last year against the Vols, and this time they scored 20 points and made up a 14-point deficit before falling. That isn’t a sign of a team ready to quit. The 2019 Gamecocks had just 1 offensive touchdown in their final three games. Harris, Smith and Hill helped them triple that output this time.
Florida next week offers an opponent uniquely suited to match the Gamecocks’ strengths. Dan Mullen’s team put up a 51-point offensive outburst in a win over Ole Miss, which managed 35 itself in coach Lane Kiffin’s debut. The Gamecocks would like to believe their defense is better than that, and the Florida defense offers opportunities to exploit. And following Oklahoma’s loss, Florida will stay near the top of the polls.
You can also bet your bottom dollar that the officiating in last year’s game will be brought up as a motivational tool next week.
Some of the challenges to be ready for are a double-covered Smith, a difficult matchup against Gators tight end Kyle Pitts and what Bobo can do to get a 100-yard rusher. The three-headed rushing attack of Harris, Fenwick and Zaquandre White needs to produce more than a combined 105 yards.
Most importantly, though, Muschamp’s team needs that killer instinct that will take the kind of late field-goal or 4th-down decision out of his hands.