Mississippi State ran through South Carolina’s tackles and its offensive line on Saturday night. In the process, the Bulldogs trampled into the dirt all the good feelings the Gamecocks built up last week in a season-opening victory.
When it was over, mercifully in the Gamecocks’ case, Mississippi State had a 27-14 victory and Will Muschamp had his first loss as South Carolina’s head coach. The loss snapped the Gamecocks seven-game winning streak against the Bulldogs, which dated back to 1999.
The first play of the game set the tone. The Gamecocks felt like they could hit deep passes against Mississippi State, which lost the two players starters at cornerback to preseason injuries. USC was so sure offensive coordinator Kurt Roper called a post route to wide receiver Deebo Samuel. He was open, and starting quarterback Perry Orth lofted the ball out ahead of him, but Samuel pulled up with a hamstring injury before the ball hit the ground.
“Going into the game, we were like, ‘We are about to take shots,’ because we didn’t think their corners were so good,” Samuel said. “I was there. When I saw the ball, I thought, ‘OK, this is about to be a touchdown,’ and then I felt (the hamstring).”
Samuel returned to the field but never looked full strength and finished with two catches for 30 yards. His team was similarly hamstrung.
Orth played the entire first half (completing 9-of-17 passes for 83 yards) and then gave way to freshman Brandon McIlwain in the second. McIlwain finished 11-of-22 passing for 126 yards and added 17 rushing yards, but the quarterback rotation had very little impact on the game.
The way the offensive line and defense played, the Gamecocks could have flown Connor Shaw home from Chicago and lost just the same.
“It all starts up front,” senior guard Cory Helms said. “When we don’t get it done, a lot of times it causes the morale to go down on the team.”
South Carolina’s quarterbacks were sacked four times and pressured six more. The Bulldogs had 11 tackles-for-loss and held the Gamecocks to 34 rushing yards and 1.1 yards per carry.
“We knew (Mississippi State’s defensive linemen) were good going into the game,” Orth said. “I don’t know if we expected that much.”
Meanwhile, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald rushed for 195 yards (a record by an MSU quarterback), and threw for another 178. Fitzgerald’s 373 yards of total offense was more than South Carolina could manage as a team (243 yards). The Bulldogs finished with 485 total yards, and Muschamp didn’t put the blame for those on the coaching staff.
“Go back and watch the tape. We had guys at the point of attack,” he said. “You have to tackle. That’s the bottom line. You have to get off blocks, you have to shed blocks, you have to run to the ball, you have to tackle. They throw a hitch, you have to tackle the guy, put the guy on the ground. You’re on scholarship, do it.”
The Gamecocks checked every box on the “Not Going to Win an SEC Game Like That” bingo card.
▪ They turned the ball over twice.
▪ A personal foul on Kelsey Griffin wiped out a T.J. Holloman interception, and South Carolina committed six penalties worth 70 yards in all.
▪ Alan Knott snapped a ball high that McIlwain couldn’t handle on McIlwain’s first play of the game, leading to a 14-yard loss.
Mostly, though, the game was lost not on the small details but on the big ones – the fundamentals that so bedeviled USC in last season’s 3-9 season. Mississippi State led 24-0 at halftime, and a one-hour, three-minute lighting delay at halftime didn’t do anything but postpone the inevitable for South Carolina.
The Gamecocks gained 163 of their yards when victory was essentially out of reach.
“We responded in the second half. I was very pleased with how our guys came out and played in the second half,” Muschamp said. “The first half wasn’t indicative of who we are.”
Many of the 57,763 fans who turned out didn’t make it through a weather delay. USC would just as soon nobody had seen any of it.