At times the past few weeks, it seemed as if wide receiver Pharoh Cooper stood alone as a key playmaker for South Carolina. Other guys handled the ball, moved it in spots, but nothing consistent.
It turned out the cavalry was coming in the form of tailback Brandon Wilds, who played his first game in a month Saturday against Vanderbilt.
“Before the game, I actually talked with Pharoh,” Wilds said. “And I was like, ‘Remember last year when we wore black?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘You had your best game, I had my best game.’
“So we tried to come out, do it again.”
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They did. Wilds had 119 yards, as he carried the ball 24 times. Cooper had a season-best with 160 receiving yards on seven catches, including a 78-yard touchdown.
Wilds was relatively matter-of-fact about his return, loving being back out there with his teammates. Interim head coach Shawn Elliott was more loquacious after challenging Wilds during the week.
“Brandon coming back, he was determined,” Elliott said. “We tried to bat him all week. We need you. This team needs you, needs strong leadership. He was very, very important and critical to our win.”
Wilds said the doctors told him his rib injury had a six-week timeline. He was cleared to go last week, the third since the injury, but he wasn’t confident enough to go. He had no such qualms this week.
His return didn’t solve everything, as finishing drives continued to be a problem. Four red-zone trips produced four field goal attempts, one missed, and seven trips inside the 40 produced an average of 2.7 points, less than the team’s season average of four, which ranks115th in the country.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” Elliott said. “Being behind the eight ball, so to speak, in preparation for the week, some distractions. There were some missed assignments down there, some better plays we thought we could have been in.
“You’ve got to block.”
Cooper, the offense’s rock the whole season, actually contributed there, dropping a third-down slant in the end zone to turn a touchdown into a field goal. It didn’t take too much shine off his performance.
His 78-yard, go-ahead, catch-and-run touchdown was the game-changer, and afterward, he pointed out it was a carbon copy of a score against LSU. He said the staff saw the defensive alignment, a free release at the line with only one safety deep, and offensive coordinator G.A. Mangus checked him into a slant. When the underneath linebacker went with tight end Jerell Adams, Cooper was open, shook his man and made any angle the safety had disappear.
“Mangus checked it,” Cooper said. “The play-call, quick slant. Happened the same way against LSU last week. Ran it again and scored.”
Quarterback Perry Orth had his own perspective on what transpired post-snap.
“Pharoh got open, he did the rest,” Orth said.