The South Carolina football team got the one thing it really wanted in Nashville Thursday night — a win. Even better for the Gamecocks, it was an SEC win.
The 17-13 victory against Vanderbilt to open the season resembled many of their wins from a year ago, when they didn’t overwhelm their opponents but still found a way to come out on top.
With the win in hand, the Gamecocks can go back to fine-tuning the offense, defense and special teams with nonconference games against East Carolina and UAB the next two weeks before jumping back into conference play.
Let’s take a look at the three things we learned as well as the three things we still don’t know.
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THINGS WE LEARNED
1. Marcus Lattimore is back. Was there any doubt? Coming off season-ending knee surgery in 2011, the junior tailback looked just the guy that South Carolina fans have loved since he first stepped on campus. He gained 110 yards on the ground, added 21 more on pass receptions, and scored the team’s two touchdowns. After the game, his smile told the story as he discussed how he finally got back on the field, thanking everyone who helped him overcome the injury. He remains the program’s signature player, both for the way he runs the football on the field and carries himself off the field.
2. Connor Shaw is tough. How tough? Well, pick your saying — tough as nails, tougher than a two-dollar steak, tougher than leather. Let’s face it, the leadership and toughness he showed in the second half mattered much more than his stats. Despite a banged-up right shoulder that limited his ability to throw as well as run with abandon, the junior quarterback led the nine-play, 66-yard scoring drive to start the fourth quarter. It included a 20-yard strike to Justice Cunningham and a 12-yard run to the 1-yard line that prompted admiration and amazement from his teammates.
3. The Gamecocks know how to get things started. That’s 13 consecutive opening victories dating to 2000, with six of them coming on a Thursday night in the Steve Spurrier era. The progress made by the program under Spurrier is best signified by the Top 10 preseason ranking. They’re also now accustomed to the national television lights, and while they didn’t dominate the Commodores, they kept that streak going.
THINGS WE STILL DON’T KNOW
1. Can the secondary meet the challenge? Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers threw for 214 yards, with favorite target Jordan Matthews catching a game-high eight passes for 147 yards. With three new starters in the secondary, the unit looked vulnerable much of the night. Even the game-saving defensive play on a pass from Rodgers to Matthews could have turned out differently if an official throws a flag for interference.
2. Is there a passing game to be found? Spurrier was underwhelmed by his team’s air attack — hampered in part by Shaw’s injury and the ineffectiveness of backup Dylan Thompson. The receiving corps must show there’s life after Alshon Jeffery. Lattimore led the way by catching three passes out of the backfield, while the guys whose job it is to catch the football caught a grand total of four. Top recruit Shaq Roland was nowhere to be found.
3. How good is the kicking game? Placekicker Adam Yates did what he was asked to do — make a 20-yard field goal and convert two extra points. Punter Tyler Hull was perfunctory — a 39-yard average with no boomers. But the jury’s still out on whether they can be difference-makers when a game is on the line. Damiere Byrd, though, earns the special teams a bonus point for making a potential touchdown-saving tackle to keep Andre Hal’s fourth-quarter kickoff return from going more than 52 yards.