South Carolina wanted a win.
It needed hope.
The Gamecocks got both thanks to freshman quarterback Lorenzo Nunez, who made his first collegiate start Saturday and led his team in passing and rushing in a 31-14 win against UCF.
“I think he played better than we all anticipated,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “We knew he could run, but, gosh, he hit a lot of passes. He threw the ball a lot better than, maybe, we anticipated. He’s a gamer. I think we learned that.”
Nunez completed 12 of 24 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 18 times for 123 yards. He accounted for 307 of South Carolina’s 400 yards of offense.
“I think I did a pretty good job,” said Nunez, a former four-star prospect from Kennesaw,Ga. “I did way better in the second half. The first half, I was a little shaky.”
Everyone in garnet and black was a little shaky in the first half. The Knights came into Williams-Brice Stadium winless this season despite playing both Florida International and Furman, and after 30 minutes, UCF led 14-8.
Nunez stayed the course, though, and his teammates righted the ship around him as the Gamecocks scored 26 unanswered points to finish the game. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder’s performance gives a team that still is wondering if it can compete when conference action resumes next week some hope that it might.
Nunez rallied both his offensive and defensive teammates with a block against a UCF linebacker that cleared the way for wide receiver Pharoh Cooper’s 29-yard touchdown run that put South Carolina ahead 15-14 with 7:41 left in the third quarter.
“I was trying to pancake him, honestly,” Nunez said. “He looked like he was kind of scared, so I hit him.”
“I thought he just clipped him, but when I saw it on the big screen, I saw he actually blocked him. He stoned the guy,” Cooper said. “He’s not just a little pocket passer quarterback. He’s not a normal quarterback. He’s a quarterback, but he’s kind of different. He’s like an athlete.”
South Carolina quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus moved from the sideline to the press box for Saturday’s game and called most of the plays in the first half.
“This is new for me, a quarterback that can run like (Nunez) can, so we are trying to maximize the talents of our players,” Spurrier said. “We called so many of these runs and options, I said, ‘You guys are a little more comfortable calling those than I am,’ but in the second half I jumped in there a lot of times.”
Nunez and the Gamecocks did not beat the 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday. Heck, they didn’t even beat the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who went winless for the season).
The Knights (0-4) came into the game with the worst offense in the FBS, averaging 3.71 yards per play. They scored on drives of 1 yard and 93 yards in the first half and finished with 230 yards on 61 plays (3.77 yards per play).
“Anytime you can win after losing two ball games in a row, it’s huge, because it plays mentally on the coaches, plays mentally on the kids,” defensive co-coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “You have to play with confidence. No matter who you play, it’s definitely big if you win after you lost two ball games in a row.”
Spurrier acknowledged his defense “will have to stop some good teams” before anyone can make any definitive statements, but the Gamecocks will take hope anywhere they can get it after losing to Kentucky and being walloped by Georgia in the past two weeks.
“We’re capable,” Spurrier said. “I really believe we’re capable.”
The Gamecocks (2-2) return to SEC action on Saturday in a noon game at Missouri.
“Hopefully, this is a confidence-builder for a lot of young guys,” Spurrier said. “It was a good win for us. Hopefully, we can play better and better as the season goes. Our teams, generally, have done that. Let’s hope this one is going to do it.”