South Carolina hasn’t arrived after all.
It was easy to get caught up in the Gamecocks’ two impressive wins to start the season, and a fan base longing for a return to the kind of football played in Williams-Brice Stadium in the earlier parts of this decade did. Saturday’s game started with an electric atmosphere, a la 2010-14, with 82,439 fans decked out in black as the Gamecocks had requested, bouncing to “Sandstorm” in near frenzy.
When South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel caught a 68-yard touchdown pass on the first offensive play of the game, it looked like the Gamecocks were off to the races. Instead, they fell on their face, losing to Kentucky 23-13 in a discombobulated effort that bore almost no resemblance to the first two weeks.
“As good a night as our fans and our administration set up for us and go out and play like that is my responsibility,” coach Will Muschamp said. “Just extremely disappointing.”
Even moreso because of a left leg injury suffered by Samuel, who broke his leg and will miss the remainder of the season, according to Muschamp. Samuel later tweeted that it was an ankle injury and he might be able to return late this season. Either way, the news of the injury added to the insult of all the other things that transpired during the game.
This was not how the night was supposed to go for South Carolina.
The offense that was supposed to save them this season could find nothing to complement Samuel until it was too late. The junior wide receiver was electric once again but nobody else was. Samuel had five catches for 122 yards, accounting for 34 percent of his team’s yards despite playing less than three quarters.
The toughness that was supposed to have taken a step up instead took the weekend off. The Gamecocks rushed for 54 yards on 20 carries, or 2.7 yards per carry. Early in the third quarter, South Carolina failed to pick up a first down on consecutive second-and-1, third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 interior runs at midfield. Early in the fourth quarter, facing fourth-and-goal from the one-foot line, South Carolina tried to run Rico Dowdle around the edge. That, too, failed.
The special teams that had been very special contributed three missed field goals and a missed extra point.
Muschamp saw none of it coming, he said.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I felt like we had good preparation.”
Until Saturday night, it had been easy to get carried away. The Gamecocks beat two Power 5 teams away from home in the first two weeks of the season and sprinkled seeds of hope throughout those games. Meanwhile, most of the SEC East seemed to be crumbling all around them. It wasn’t difficult to look ahead and see a November that involved very meaningful South Carolina football.
That might still happen, but Saturday night was a reminder that this team still has a ways to go. The issues that seemed so glaring in the preseason – like a lack of quality depth, an anemic run game, inexperience in the kicking game – haven’t gone away after all. And South Carolina hasn’t arrived after all.