The usually reliable Pharoh Cooper had an uncharacteristically poor first half Saturday afternoon against UCF. To the surprise of no one, the junior more than made up for it to lead the Gamecocks to a 31-14 victory.
Cooper muffed a punt in the first quarter to set up the Knights’ first touchdown and dropped a would-be touchdown in the second quarter as the Gamecocks trailed 14-8 at the break. With South Carolina still trailing and searching for a spark halfway through the third period, Cooper turned a busted play into a 29-yard touchdown run to give the Gamecocks the lead. Later, he caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Lorenzo Nunez to put the game away.
“We look to him for big plays,” USC’s defensive leader, Skai Moore, said. “That’s just football, whatever happened in the first half with that muffed punt. We don’t get down on him. We know he’s going to come back and make plays, and that’s what he did today.”
On Cooper’s touchdown run, Nunez turned to his right and fired a backwards pass to his star receiver, who looked downfield for an open target. Instead, Cooper saw a safety waiting where the ball was supposed to go.
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Rather than force a pass into coverage, he took off, weaving through the crowd and reversing field for a highlight-reel touchdown.
“We had a little trick play on, designed play. I was supposed to throw it down to the deep guy, but the safety rolled over,” Cooper said. “I tucked it in, ran, cut through a couple of linemen. It was a play I had to make when something else wasn’t there.”
With South Carolina’s lead at 22-14 later in the quarter, Nunez hurled a pass in Cooper’s direction into double coverage in the end zone. The junior went up and made the catch over both defenders.
“Coach told Lorenzo to take his drops and throw it, and he threw it. It was pretty much double coverage, I just had to go ahead and make a play,” Cooper said. “I just had to high point the ball and come down with it to make up for the mistakes I did earlier in the first half.”
Despite the end result working out OK for South Carolina, Cooper said he learned a lesson from his muffed punt in the first half. On the play, he backpedaled to the 1-yard line and tried to catch the ball with a defender right in front of him. Do not expect Cooper to make the same mistake going forward.
“I’m not supposed to do that, and I already know that. Players and coaches know that’s not what type of player I am,” he said. “About 30 seconds after that, I was over it and ready to play the next series. I wasn’t thinking on that play, and that’s something I can’t do. Looking forward to the rest of the season, I have to be smarter than that, and that was my fault.”