At least through one college game, this much was clear: Gamecocks freshman runner Rico Dowdle can play a little bit.
A close film breakdown of his first college action against Texas A&M showed a back with pop and balance, one who could escape some bad spots. He gained 47 yards on his nine runs, but that’s only part of the story.
Dowdle’s lack of practice time showed in the fact that all nine of his runs came behind the same kinds of inside zone and zone read plays.
Opponents made contact with him behind the line on at least five of those carries. That meant 45 yards came after contact.
VIDEO CLIP - Dowdle doesn’t go down:
Will Muschamp later praised the way he punched through the hole on zone reads, and that was apparent. Those plays make defensive ends hang back, opening a cutback lane. A good, fast defender can limit how much that matters, but a decisive back, as Dowdle showed, can make them pay for every moment of hesitation.
Life with a freshman QB
First-year quarterback Brandon McIlwain’s day started with five completions in his first seven passes, for a not-all-that-great 38 yards. His next 10 attempts produced minus-4 yards, mainly because of two badly blown-up screens.
VIDEO CLIP - Screen goes wrong:
Most of what he threw were screens and short slants or hitches, often quick reads paired with runs. It’s unclear what kind of deep throws were possible or open, but only one of his passes was targeted more than 12 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Texas A&M’s secondary is one of the best in the nation, so it’s possible the Gamecocks’ depleted group of receivers was rarely open early on. Once Perry Orth came in, he started throwing to receivers running deeper routes, targeting receivers at least 11 yards downfield 10 times.
Third downs shut down
The number itself looks grisly: 3-for-14 on third downs. The Gamecocks’ day against Texas A&M wasn’t that far out of the ordinary, as USC is converting those at a 29-percent rate.
Against the Aggies, the South Carolina offense fell victim to a simple reality: If you don’t stay ahead of the chains, you won’t convert third downs.
USC’s average distance to go on third down was 10.2 yards. Only twice did the Gamecocks have to get fewer than five yards to convert (they got both). Ten of the 14 chances needed seven yards or more.
10.2 South Carolina’s average yards to gain on third down vs. Texas A&M
That’s going badly for any team, let alone one with a freshman quarterback and depleted receiving group. The outcomes of plays reflected that, as McIlwain was regularly pressured or sacked, and often got rid of the ball short with time running out.
The Gamecocks struggled to convert momentum plays by their defense and special teams into many points or much production. Three big ones came in the third quarter and produced only a field goal.
Early on, a Darius English strip sack set the Gamecocks up at the the A&M 28, but two basic zone runs produced only five yards and the Gamecocks couldn’t stop two defenders from blowing up an option play.
Sean Kelly’s fake punt pass to Hayden Hurst wasn’t a turnover per se, but it kept the ball in the hands of the Gamecocks. Rico Dowdle ran well enough on the next series, but South Carolina couldn’t handle a third-down blitz, and Hurst, a tight end, got beat by top-flight end Daeshon Hall.
VIDEO CLIP - Hurst matched up on Hall (10)
Later in the quarter, an interception put USC on its own 11, and after a three-and-out, the Aggies got to start an eventual touchdown drive just short of midfield. The plays included a zone read, likely trying to get some breathing room, and a third-down screen, but both yielded little as downfield blockers couldn’t find their men.
▪ USC’s coaches moved their Bucks far out against the Aggies, sometimes having Bryson Allen-Williams and freshman D.J. Wonnum play over outside wide receivers like cornerbacks.
▪ Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said he liked his offensive line’s progress in spots, but on tape there were still struggles. Hall gave multiple linemen trouble, while guard Cory Helms and center Alan Knott got pushed into the backfield on several occasions.
▪ DB Antoine Wilder had one of the more subtly impressive plays of the day, attacking a run play upfield and forcing the Aggies to handle him with not one but two pulling offensive linemen. That opened things up for Allen-Williams to clean things up for a 3-yard loss.
VIDEO CLIP - Wilder (21) blows up blocking