The University of South Carolina football team was dominated by East Carolina on Saturday … yet the Gamecocks still won.
Assuming we’re using that term loosely …
Despite being out-gained by a 519 to 312-yard margin, getting nearly tripled-up on first downs (34 to 13) and finding themselves “out-possessed” by nearly seventeen minutes of clock time – head coach Will Muschamp‘s team somehow managed to escape from Williams-Brice Stadium with a 20-15 non-conference win.
The Gamecocks (2-1, 1-1 SEC) didn’t deserve the victory, though – certainly not on the defensive side of the ball.
In fact it could be argued the team’s 2016 home opener was a “moral defeat.”
Led by wide receiver Zay Jones and quarterback Philip Nelson, the Pirates’ offense gashed South Carolina all afternoon – picking up huge chunks of yardage through the air. Most of the damage was done by Jones, who set a new East Carolina school record with 22 receptions – one shy of the NCAA Division I mark.
Nelson completed 44 of 58 passes for 400 yards, but he and the Pirates (2-1, 0-0 AAC) were their own worst enemies – committing three turnovers in the end zone and missing a field goal. Nelson was picked off twice – while running back Anthony Scott fumbled in the end zone on another drive. East Carolina was also penalized eight times for 75 yards.
Those costly miscues bailed out the Gamecocks, who sputtered on offense in their first game with true freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain at the helm.
McIlwain completed 16 of 28 passes for 195 yards – with no touchdowns and no inteceptions. He also ran for 34 yards and a pair of scores – both in the first quarter.
But uninspired play-calling, lackluster execution and poor field awareness kept the Gamecocks from sustaining drives.
In fact were it not for a big opening kickoff return from redshirt freshman A.J. Turner, Saturday’s home opener could have gone much differently …
(Click to enlarge)
(Pic via Travis Bell Photography)
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Clifton, Virginia native took Caleb Pratt‘s kickoff back eighty yards to the East Carolina fifteen-yard-line. On the very next play, McIlwain faked a handoff and raced into the end zone untouched.
The announced crowd of 80,384 went wild.
On the very next drive, McIlwain looked like a seasoned veteran – nailing true freshman wide receiver Bryan Edwards on a 42-yard deep throw down the left sideline before scoring on a virtually identical fake-handoff scamper.
Less than five minutes had elapsed from the game clock at the time, but South Carolina would not taste pay dirt again for the rest of the game.
The notoriously slow-starting Gamecocks reverted to their anemic “offensive” ways – gaining just 26 yards on their next four drives combined.
Nevertheless, the man tasked with rebuilding the South Carolina program liked what he saw from his young signal-caller.
“I thought he did really well,” Muschamp said of McIlwain after the game. “When we needed a field goal to make it a two score game (he made) two fabulous throws.”
Muschamp also said his defense played “outstanding,” causing us wonder exactly what football game he was watching.
South Carolina’s next opponent? Kentucky (1-2, 0-1 SEC) – which will host the Gamecocks next Saturday evening in Lexington. That game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. EDT and will be televised on the SEC Network.
EAST CAROLINA-SOUTH CAROLINA GAME BOOK (.pdf)
(Banner image via Travis Bell Photography)