Sparks are elusive and sometimes fleeting things.
South Carolina was looking for that “spark” – the catch-all phrase for something, anything to right a listing team – when it started freshman Brandon McIlwain at quarterback against East Carolina on Saturday.
McIlwain provided enough of that hard-to-define something to boost the Gamecocks past the Pirates 20-15 in front of 80,384 fans who were getting their first chance this season to see the home team in Williams-Brice Stadium. McIlwain, who enrolled in college only eight months ago and played as a backup in the first two games of the season, is now South Carolina’s starting quarterback, coach Will Muschamp said after the game.
In fact, he’s now South Carolina’s quarterback, period. Senior Perry Orth, who started both games this season and has started 10 in his career, is now the backup, ready in case of injury, but not a part of the weekly plan, Muschamp indicated.
“This is not a slight on Perry Orth at all,” Muschamp said. “We needed to have some legs from the quarterback position at this time. It’s about where we are with our offense. We felt like that would be the best for us at this time.”
Orth, through no fault of his own, is the victim of an offense so limited in other areas that it had to try something. He has been sacrificed in the name of “spark.”
McIlwain took every snap Saturday. He finished 16 of 28 passing for 195 yards and added 34 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries. He scored on the first play of the game, taking advantage of a long kickoff return with a 9-yard keeper that put South Carolina up 7-0. He scored on an almost identical 10-yard run four minutes later.
“I think he has a lot of poise about him,” Muschamp said. “He has a lot of the ‘it’ factor you look at for at that position. He doesn’t get fazed by a lot. He’s got a very good work ethic. He’s extremely intelligent. There are a lot of the intangible qualities you look for at the position. Extremely proud of Brandon.”
McIlwain was not made available to speak to the media after the game. He hasn’t been all season per Muschamp’s policy of keeping freshmen off limits to the media. The thinking apparently being that while able to shoulder the expectations of 80,000 fans and turn back 11 opponents with ill will, McIlwain might wilt at the prospect of questioning from a couple dozen media members.
The Gamecocks are 2-1 overall, and, just like that, the season has hope again after a dispiriting effort last week against Mississippi State. Here’s the thing about sparks, though, they can go a couple of directions. Drifting to the ground, they can start a fire. Drifting up and away into the air, they can burn out just as quickly as they as started.
Gamecocks fans need not look too far into history for this reminder. It was about this time last year that a four-star freshman quarterback “sparked” a win over a non-conference opponent. That time, it was Lorenzo Nunez beating UCF in the first start of his career. The next week, Nunez threw three interceptions against a conference opponent, and he’s now a wide receiver.
McIlwain isn’t Nunez, who looked like a wide receiver even when the roster insisted he was a quarterback. McIlwain’s a quarterback through and through. He’s the quarterback of the future for the Gamecocks, and after Saturday’s performance he’s the quarterback of the immediate future.
“Brandon did an outstanding job,” senior offensive lineman Mason Zandi said. “Coming in as a true freshman, he had poise, he had leadership. I really appreciate what he did today.”
However, once the Pirates got a handle on South Carolina’s offense with McIlwain at the helm, the Gamecocks didn’t move the ball much. Their last 10 drives totaled 229 yards and two netted more than 30 yards.
Sparks are nice, but the Gamecocks will offense will need to catch fire at some point to extend Saturday’s good feeling to the rest of the season.