Hope restored. Saturday at home against Arkansas was very much a make or break game for South Carolina in the 2017 season. The win over North Carolina State looks better every week, but after disappointing performances against Kentucky, Louisiana Tech and Texas A&M, the season opener was feeling more like a fluke than a case of a good team beating another good team. Losing to a struggling Arkansas squad at home would’ve not only cast more doubt on our prospects for this season, but on the overall direction of the program under Will Muschamp.
What we got was that rare “breather” of an SEC game for the Gamecocks. Despite the occasional frustrating moment, the game was all but decided by the time the fourth quarter started. I don’t have to tell you that’s not a particularly common occurrence for USC football. The defense was spectacular and shut down pretty much everything the ‘Hogs wanted to do, while the offense did more than its share to help choke the life out of them.
Don’t get me wrong, no one is going to look at this as a season-defining win for South Carolina. But it might’ve been a season-saving win. Arkansas is on the fast track to firing the entertaining Bret Bielema, who is only 10-24 in SEC games since he arrived in Fayetteville. But at the same time it’s a team that took Texas A&M to overtime, and was within one score of sixth-ranked TCU until late in the fourth quarter. So the Razorbacks were certainly capable of coming into Columbia and causing trouble.
But Muschamp’s boys didn’t let that happen. As a matter of fact they imposed their will and pushed around another SEC school for the first time in ages. And in the process, they restored some hope that 2017 could be a pretty good season after all.
Let’s hear it for the D. I have been more critical of the Gamecock defense than pretty much anyone I know. I haven’t trusted these guys because they have no superstars and I didn’t feel like the stats were telling the whole story on this unit. I’m here today to admit I’ve been dead wrong.
While “superstar” might still be a little strong for anybody on that side of the ball, Skai Moore has certainly returned to form as the ball hawk we all remember. TJ Brunson is a tackling machine, and nobody in the league or out of the league has dared throw it Rashad Fenton’s way more than a couple of times a game. And now DJ Wonnum has become that disruptive force on the defensive line that has been so badly needed. There are plenty more who deserve praise as well.
The net result is the Gamecock D has held every opponent it has faced below their per game scoring average. It probably took me too long to get there, and I’m knocking on wood as I say this, but I’m now a firm believer in the system and players we have on defense.
Once, twice, three times. Per ESPN, the Gamecocks had not scored a defensive touchdown since 2014, the longest such streak in the SEC. In the second half on Saturday, USC scored three touchdowns over the course of five Arkansas possessions. One other defensive score was overturned when the ‘Hogs runner was (barely) ruled down, and early in the game Jamyest Williams let a scoop and score opportunity slip through his hands.
This is 40. South Carolina scored 40 points for the second time in the Will Muschamp era, and for the first time against an SEC opponent. It was also the first time a Muschamp-coached team scored 40 points in a conference game since 2012. The opponent that day? You don’t want to know.
Roper hope. Kurt Roper kept the wolves at bay for at least one week with a nicely called game. He mixed up the run and pass very well, and if Jake Bentley had thrown a couple more accurate balls we could’ve scored more than 50. All this with a patched together offensive line. The only thing I wish Roper would do is take a page out of the Spurrier playbook and take a shot at the end zone when we force a turnover in plus territory.
Wake up call. If Jake Bentley played the first quarter the way he plays the last three he would be first-team All-SEC. Once again Bentley got off to a slow start on Saturday, completing only five of his first 15 passes for 28 yards. He followed up the slow start by going 11-16 for 171 yards and three touchdowns. He is now third in the league in yards and touchdowns, trailing two quarterbacks in Shea Patterson and Drew Lock who a) have wildly inflated numbers due to early weak competition and b) are often forced to throw the ball a lot because they are behind.
Never kick. Never kick.
D Will. I genuinely felt bad for David Williams on Saturday, after a performance he called “embarrassing, to be honest”. Williams came to USC as a highly rated running back and heir apparent to Mike Davis. He never hit his stride in Columbia, and any time he rose to the top of the depth chart he quickly slid back down. He saw the writing on the wall this offseason and transferred to Arkansas, where he’s actually found a little success in the Razorbacks’ offense.
I’m sure getting beat by almost four touchdowns in his return to Williams-Brice was not in his plans, and I’m not sure he expected to hear boos when he hit the field either. I’m not sure why some fans booed Williams, to my knowledge he was a model citizen at USC and never caused any problems on or off the field. Both Muschamp and Bielema had high praise for him, and I really wish the best for him going forward.
Knoxville. South Carolina returns on Saturday to a place filled with so many horrors it’s no wonder the game was traditionally played on Halloween weekend.
- 2007 – Gamecocks mount a furious rally from 21-0 down at halftime to force overtime, only to lose a heartbreaker 27-24.
- 2009 – Lane Kiffin, Tennessee in black jerseys, need I say more?
- 2011 – Ugly, ugly 14-3 win over a terrible Volunteer team.
- 2013 – Arguably the best Gamecock team ever falls on a last minute field goal.
- 2015 – Another big deficit (17-0), another rally, Jerrell Adams fumbles deep in Volunteer territory with a chance to tie or take the lead.
That’s four losses in the last five tries in Knoxville, with all four incorporating some delicious new form of knife-twisting pain for Gamecock fans.
This week USC will face a Tennessee program that currently makes a dumpster fire look like a field of fresh lilies. They have a lame duck coach, players getting suspended for fighting with one another, crushing injuries on both sides of the ball, and a fan base collectively lined up at the edge of a tall bridge.
Still, the Volunteers are favored. Given our history in Neyland, this is not at all surprising.
Go Cocks, beat the Vols.