South Carolina football has been a major disappointment this season. So much so, that the Head Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, walked away from it.
And then a spark was struck. Interim coach Shawn Elliott infused an energy and playfulness that hadn’t been seen in Columbia for quite a while. This is a different Gamecocks football team. This isn’t your daddy’s South Carolina. This isn’t your Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina.
A 19-10 victory over Vanderbilt in Elliott’s first game at the helm has the 3-4 Gamecocks (1-4 in SEC play) suddenly rejuvenated and perhaps even entertaining the idea of playing in a postseason bowl game. That’s a thought that wouldn’t have crossed the minds of Gamecock fans after dropping four of five games leading up to Spurrier’s resignation.
But Elliott has the team walking a little taller, feeling a little better about themselves, thinking a little more positively. It’s an attitude adjustment of sorts. South Carolina comes into Kyle Field for a noon Saturday kickoff with a little bit of the swagger that’s been missing since the consecutive 11-win seasons of 2011, 2012, and 2013.
This South Carolina football team is, if you will, cocky once again. Or at least as much so as a 16-point underdog can be. And that’s just the kind of disrespect Elliott will use to add fuel to the fire that appears to be burning inside this team.
With a bye week to rejoice in the victory over Vandy, heel and prepare for the Aggies, who knows what Elliott might pull on Saturday. He has the luxury of two healthy quarterbacks now.
Dual-threat QB Lorenzo Nunez is back at full strength after injuring his shoulder in the fourth quarter of an Oct. 3 loss to Missouri. The freshman former walk-on had been fairly effective in his opportunities this season, throwing for 374 yards while completing 61 percent of his passes (31-for-51) for a quarterback rating of 130.
Nunez is still the second-leading rusher on the team with 299 yards on 45 carries, despite missing two games. That’s just one yard shy of Brandon Wilds, the team’s top rusher.
Nunez provides an interesting compliment to what junior QB Perry Orth brings to the table. More the pocket passer, Orth has thrown for 755 yards this season, completing 52.4 percent (54-for-103).
If Elliott can just get the two leaders to protect the football, it would be an important improvement. While the two quarterbacks have combined for seven touchdowns, they’ve also thrown as many interceptions.
Elliott has also been afforded an extra week to figure out how to get the football more often in the hands of playmaker WR Pharoh Cooper. The junior speedster has accounted for 675 yards of total offense and five touchdowns this season.
You can bet he will be involved in some form of trickeration on Saturday. It should be interesting to see just how Elliott comes up with ways to use those weapons to pump up an offense 12th in the SEC in scoring (20.4 points per game) and next-to-last in the league in total offense (353.4 yards per game).
SOUTH CAROLINA: A CLOSER LOOK
Top returning player offense: Pharoh Cooper, Jr., WR – A real game-breaker either running or catching the ball, or returning punts; Cooper has accumulated a team-high 729 all-purpose yards. He rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in addition to his receiving yardage, which in three seasons has reached 1,777 yards and 15 touchdowns on 112 receptions.
Top returning player defense: Skai Moore, Jr., LB – The team leader in tackles (69), tackles for loss (4.5) and interceptions (4), the ball-hawking Moore is also tied for the team lead with four pass breakups and one fumble recovery.
Top returning player, special teams: Shon Carson, RS Sr., TB – The team leader in kickoff returns with a 25.2-yard average on 11 returns, Carson has consistently put Carolina in decent field position, including breaking his longest return of 51 yards.