In retrospect, last week was probably too early for South Carolina football fans to start buying bowl tickets.
The Will Muschamp era started so well against Vanderbilt – a 13-10 victory that wasn’t perfect, but showed some qualities the team could build on, most notably resilience.
Then came Saturday against Mississippi State – a 27-14 loss that reminded people of many of the reasons this team went 3-9 a year ago. And just like it was premature to call this team cured last week, it’s also too early to give up on the Gamecocks season.
South Carolina is 1-1 overall and 1-1 in the SEC headed into Saturday’s game, which is its first nonconference game of the season, not to mention Muschamp’s first home game as head coach. East Carolina is no slouch. The Pirates are 2-0 and coming off a victory against North Carolina State.
The game is a sellout and is sure to be boisterous at least from the start. A win gets South Carolina pointed back in the right direction with a dreadful-looking Kentucky team coming up next week, but here are the three things savvy Gamecocks fans will be worried about when they enter Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Gamecocks are 125th in the nation in yards per carry (2.46). They ran the ball 31 times against Mississippi State and saw 34 yards come of it. Two games is too early to put much stock in statistics, but the ground game has to get much better for South Carolina to have any chance to move the ball.
Freshman running back A.J. Turner, who has 102 yards in two games, seems to be the only running back the team trusts. Junior David Williams, at one time the presumed starter, didn’t get a carry against Mississippi State. Former walk-on Rod Talley, who supplanted Williams as the backup running back, had one carry for 2 yards.
The offensive line was little to no help against the Bulldogs, and the Gamecocks are running out of places to turn up front (more on this later). Muschamp often describes himself as “old school,” and the label fits his belief in and dedication to the running game. What happens if South Carolina can’t run the ball? We found out against Mississippi State, and it’s not good.
South Carolina’s injury luck from the preseason seems to have run out. Starting safety Chaz Elder will miss at least this week with a rib contusion, but the bigger concern is on the offensive line. Donnell Stanley, the starting right guard, and Blake Camper, who started one game at right tackle, both are sidelined with high ankle sprains. Stanley is out at least until mid-October. Camper has been ruled out only for this week, but he was on crutches and a walking boot when he left Davis-Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss., on Saturday and ankles tend to heal slowly when they’re holding up 300 pounds, as is the case for the ankles of Stanley and Camper.
The offensive line injuries have wiped out the depth at the only position the Gamecocks had any left. South Carolina was bad up front against the Bulldogs, but the offensive linemen on this roster who are SEC-ready already have played. The Gamecocks might move Alan Knott to guard and put Cory Helms back at center to alleviate last week’s snapping issues, and there’s a chance sophomore Malik Young could work his way into the depleted rotation, but there aren’t many answers after that.
More specifically, the lack of them. Here’s the dilemma Muschamp faced on Saturday in Starkville: He was clearly very unhappy with the play of cornerback Chris Lammons because he perceived Lammons to be an unwilling tackler. So, Muschamp benched Lammons and inserted junior college transfer Jamarcus King. King could turn into a top-flight player at the position, but he’s still learning. The Bulldogs went after him as soon as he entered the game, and kept it up all night long.
This is an issue the coaching staff has up and down the roster. Not happy with one player? Who are you going to replace him with? When Deebo Samuel tweaks a hamstring, where do you turn in a wide receiver rotation you’ve already acknowledged is only three players deep at the moment? If a linebacker misses too many tackles, what’s the next option? A true freshman.
All these things can be fixed moving forward, but they can’t be forgotten at the moment.
Who: ECU (2-0) at USC (1-1)
When: 4 p.m., Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
TV: SEC Network / Radio: 107.5 FM