Will Muschamp threw his offensive coordinator candidate to the wolves Monday, or more specifically, to the Wolverines, and for a long time, the wolves were winning.
South Carolina entered the Outback Bowl against Michigan with wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon serving as interim offensive coordinator and conducting what Muschamp described as “a long job interview.” For the first 40 minutes of the game, it was Michigan that had all the right answers.
The Gamecocks (9-4) fell behind 19-3 in Raymond James Stadium, and their first 11 possessions totaled 81 yards and three points. Their next four possessions resulted in 225 yards and 23 points as South Carolina rallied for a 26-19 victory.
“I thought Bryan McClendon did an outstanding job of preparing our football team offensively,” Muschamp said. “Made a lot of adjustments at halftime on some things we felt like we could take advantage of.”
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Muschamp neither took special care to help prepare McClendon for this game because of his inexperience nor visited with McClendon or any member of the offensive staff at halftime of Monday’s game, he said.
“I had total confidence in them making the right adjustments,” he said.
McClendon, who had not called plays in his seven-year career until Monday, was not available for comment after the game. Muschamp allows his assistant coaches to speak to the media twice a year.
Quarterback Jake Bentley was left to speak for McClendon.
“What we said we were going to run in practice, we did. He said we were going to go out and challenge those guys, and that’s what we did,” Bentley said. “Everyone had complete confidence in him. I think it showed through bowl practice. I think we scored more touchdowns on our defense during bowl practice than we did all season. To come out and play well is a great feeling.”
Especially against this defense. Michigan (8-5) came into the game with the third-ranked defense in the country, allowing 268.6 yards a game. South Carolina gained 300, becoming the fifth team to do that or more against the Wolverines this year. Bentley finished 19 of 32 passing for 239 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against the nation’s No. 1 passing defense, which allowed 142.7 yards a game through the air in the regular season.
“The guys are confident in what we are doing, and it starts in practice,” Bentley said. “We were really confident coming into the game.”
The difference in South Carolina’s offense during the course of Monday’s game was part coaching adjustment and part attitude adjustment, Bentley said.
“We changed some things, and we also just said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and went and made some plays,” he said.
Now Muschamp has to decide whether he’s going to make McClendon his full-time offensive coordinator. Muschamp has to get this hire right. He will enter the 2018 season with his fifth offensive coordinator in seven seasons as a head coach, and the inability to muster any sort of offense has been a stone around the neck of his previous six teams.
McClendon is a coveted assistant because of his recruiting acumen and the respect he has among his peers, but Muschamp can’t give him this promotion just to keep from losing him to another job.
Muschamp made it clear before the game that he wanted a faster offense than he had under fired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, and McClendon listened.
The Gamecocks went at a much faster pace than they had all season but finished with only 58 plays due to their early inefficiency. In the first half, Michigan had 20:03 worth of time of possession to South Carolina’s 9:57, but McClendon was stubborn about keeping up the pace and the time of possession evened out somewhat over the course of the game (Michigan 34:17, South Carolina 25:43).
Stubbornness seems like it would qualify as an asset to Muschamp.
“I am not going to address anything else about the offensive coordinator position at this time,” the head coach said, “but really impressed with Bryan and the job he did.”
Beating the Wolverines “helps his chances, obviously,” Bentley said.
But Bentley declined to cast a vote in regard to McClendon’s future.
“I am not going to get into that,” he said. “I let coach Muschamp handle all that decision. I have full belief in coach Muschamp that he’s going to make the right decision.”
It sounded Monday like Muschamp already had made the decision.