Call it a late stand and a first step.
Late in the second half Saturday against Clemson, South Carolina quarterback Perry Orth was in a bad spot. He’d overthrown balls to open targets, connected on only 4 of 13 passes for 42 yards and led a unit that struggled to put up points against the Tigers’ stingy defense.
The coaches gave him a stark ultimatum: Get better or you’ll be benched.
“I felt comfortable with our gameplan, felt comfortable with the plays, I was seeing the field,” Orth said. “Balls were just coming out hot. Not sure why. I was relaxed. Maybe that’s just how it goes sometimes.”
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Freshman Lorenzo Nunez and wide receiver Pharoh Cooper had taken snaps from Orth in the first half, and the former walk-on felt the pressure.
Orth has had a bumpy year. He ascended to the starting role before giving way to Nunez and then returning to the top job. He’d done well to empower playmakers earlier in the season, and now, hanging with the top team in the country, he was out of sorts.
“It affected us a lot,” South Carolina coach Shawn Elliott said. “He missed some throws, made some poor decisions.
“I told him, I’m prepared to run the ball every single down in the second half. I said we can’t throw it, we’re not making plays with our skill-position players and you’re not putting them in position for these guys to make plays.”
He came back with 182 passing yards after halftime, including three touchdowns. It put him 71 yards short of 2,000 for the year. After going 2-for-9 on third down in the first two quarters, the Gamecocks were 4-for-6 in the second half.
Cooper, playing his final game in a Carolina uniform, snagged four passes for 86 yards, but he wasn’t the Gamecocks’ most productive target.
All season, South Carolina has looked for a target to complement Cooper’s dynamic playmaking, and Saturday, Deebo Samuel fulfilled the role. The redshirt freshman caught five passes for 104 yards, including a seven-yard touchdown pass and a 48-yard catch-and-run.
This season was a missed opportunity for the former four-star prospect. Injuries, especially a nagging hamstring, limited Samuel to only five games. Saturday’s output alone more than doubled his season total, and he could only wonder what might have been.
“Everytime I tried to come back, I just hurt it again,” Samuel said. “I was kind of getting down on myself, but coach was like, ‘Keep working, keep going to the training room,’ and I ended up getting healthy for the past few games.”