The Gamecocks got all that they could have asked for and more on Saturday, when they went into Bright House Networks Stadium to take on an excellent Central Florida team. The South Carolina football team once again proved that they have a squad that is fit to win close games; the only issue is whether they should be in these close games at all.
While the ability to not lose focus or hope and to hang in to win a close game in a hostile environment is an invaluable asset—one that cannot be coached—the Gamecocks seem to continually put themselves in unnecessarily stressful situation. As a Gamecock fan, a win is a win, but the mess of a game that almost saw South Carolina drop to 2-2 has to raise a few concerns.
The biggest concern, at this juncture in the season, is this team’s apparent inability to play a full 60-minute game. Previously, Steve Spurrier’s team had no problem jumping out early, scoring 72 of their 92 points in the first halves of their games, before tapering off in the second half. Saturday was a different story. South Carolina was blanked in the first half before an offensive explosion—and a few plays on defense—led to 28 straight points.
After the Knights had an impressive opening drive (10 plays and 75 yards, resulting a touchdown) the Gamecocks responded by putting together a nice drive of their own. In the midst of the 8-play 27-yard drive, starting Quarterback Connor Shaw was hit in such a way that caused him to land badly on his right shoulder—the same shoulder that gave him so much trouble last year—and took him out of the game and possibly another 2-3 weeks. This gave UCF the ball, the momentum, and gave South Carolina a shock to the system.
Backup Quarterback Dylan Thompson has proven on more than one occasion that he is just as capable at directing the offense as Shaw, to the point where many people believed that this season would be one of quarterback controversy. Even being thrust into games suddenly, as he was in the Outback Bowl win over Michigan or his one pass attempt—for a touchdown—against North Carolina, Thompson can be a plug and play kind of guy.
Unfortunately, it was not to be so in the first half. UCF held the momentum and the Gamecock offense struggled to sustain drives and penetrate Central Florida territory. Spurrier tried to establish the pass with Thompson in the game, but Thompson was 8-19 in the half with an interception. The deepest penetrating drive that the Gamecocks had the 1st half was their last, which would have at least yielded a field goal attempt had Corey Robinson not committed a personal foul.
The defense only allowed 10 points to an explosive Knights offense at home, although they allowed just over 200 yards. UCF’s opening drive was impressive and showed why Bortles is one of the more dangerous Quarterbacks that South Carolina will face this year. The only other long drive that Central Florida managed to sustain was greatly aided by an egregious targeting call on Safety Brison Williams. This call, which was initially an ejection, was overturned, but it showcased why this new rule, though it may be well intentioned, is seriously flawed. The flag was thrown for illegal targeting of a defenseless receiver. This would have seen Brison Williams ejected from the game. The booth—fortunately—overturned this call, however, the 15-yard personal foul was still tacked on…even though the booth just determined that the personal foul did not actually happen—looking at you NCAA.
The second half saw a tremendous turnaround for the Gamecocks offensively. Mike Davis set the tone early with a 53-yard rumble on the fourth play of the opening drive of the second half. Thus begun the Mike Davis show.
Entering the game, Davis was averaging 7.6 yards per carry and had three touchdowns his name. His average was hurt a little—now down to just 7.2 per carry—but he doubled his rushing touchdown total and with a 167-yard day, brought his rushing yardage total this season to 508. If Davis keeps this up, he is on pace to rush for over 1,500, the third-highest single season total in SC history behind George Rogers and George Rogers (per Scott Hood, Gamecockcentral). Davis, who only ran the ball five times in the first half, ran it another 21 times in the second half and wore down the UCF front seven.
The only gaffes of the offense in the second half were two fumbles. The first fumble occurred—for the second time this game—as a Gamecock player was injured. Brandon Wilds, who sat out all of last year with injury, landed awkwardly on his elbow at the end of a run mid-way through the second quarter, as the football squirted out, right to a Central Florida defender. The second fumble belonged to Mike Davis. Late in the game, with South Carolina deep in Knights’ territory, trying to punch the ball in and put the game out of reach, junior linebacker Michael Easton came through the left side of the line unblocked, to put a mean hit on Davis, which jarred the ball loose, giving the Knight life late in the game.
While turnovers are always bad, the defense was able to keep the turnover margin at zero, by picking off Blake Bortles twice, wide receiver Jeff Godfrey once, and collecting a Blake Bortles fumble. After an impressive 11-play, 96-yard drive on which the Gamecocks took a 14-10 lead, Central Florida seemed to be mounting a drive to put them in position to take the lead again, until at attempted trick play was well-read and picked off by Jimmy Legree, his second in two games. With the exception of two huge plays—which can be chalked up to busted coverage—that accounted for 152 yards of offense, the Gamecocks defense was much improve in the second half. The Knights only ran 11 plays in the third quarter—credit there can be given to the offense as much as the defense—resulting in two three and outs and one five-play drive ending in an interception.
While the defense did give up huge plays late—a 73-yard touchdown pass and a 79 -yard pass, which set up another touchdown—they did enough to stifle the Knights’ offense early, giving a Gamecocks a chance to take a lead that they would not give back.
The Gamecocks face Kentucky at home next week, a game which should give the Gamecocks a good opportunity to sure some things up, offensively and defensively before beginning a tough 3-game road stretch. Top priority for South Carolina at this point should be improving ball security—they have turned it over seven times in two games—and establishing rhythm and consistency on offense, in hopes of being able to perform for a full 60 minute game. If the Gamecocks hope to win out, which, with their schedule, depth, and talent is entirely feasible, they will have to fix the little problems and the fundamental issues moving forward. Until then, the Gamecock faithful should expect to have their blood pressure maximums tested every week.