It was a long ride home for South Carolina on Saturday, but only because it actually is a long ride – 1,094 miles.
The Gamecocks left Kyle Field looking like a team that would have a pretty lighthearted trip despite a 35-28 loss to Texas A&M that dropped their record to 3-5 overall – 1-5 in the SEC.
“A loss is a loss, and we are very disappointed in what we didn’t accomplish, but they need to understand that we improved as a group, as a team, as a staff,” said interim coach Shawn Elliott after falling to 1-1 since taking over for Steve Spurrier. “It’s a process. I thought we could have taken it today. We were really close, but close wasn’t good enough.”
It didn’t seem all that bad in the postgame interview room, though. Most of the Gamecocks who came through were upbeat even though they must win three of their final four games to become bowl eligible.
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“I think it’s pretty evident the direction we are headed in,” junior quarterback Perry Orth said. “That was a very, very talented football team we played in a hostile environment, and we battled. You can’t be pleased with a loss, but I think we’re headed in the right direction. We have had such a good attitude the last two or three weeks, it’s been fun. Hopefully, we’ll be able to turn it around get a win next week.”
The Gamecocks had several offensive highlights – a season high in yards (445), a season high in rushing for Brandon Wilds (128 yards), a perfect day in the red zone (three touchdowns on three trips).
Orth played beautifully most of the day, completing 15 of 24 passes for 192 yards and rushing for 64 yards despite 26 yards lost to sacks. But his one big mistake was the difference in the game.
Orth was looking for Pharoh Cooper on a slant route in the third quarter when Texas A&M nickel back Donovan Wilson cut in front of the pass and went 60 yards for a touchdown that put the Aggies up 35-21 with 4:08 left in the third quarter.
“Whoo, if he could have that one throw back,” Elliott said shaking his head. “Sometimes you get focused on an individual, and we had another wide open wide receiver right behind him. That was one of those ‘Tale of Two Plays.’”
Being within a play or two of victory now counts as progress in Columbia.
The Gamecocks gave up 544 yards but held the Aggies to one offensive touchdown in the second half. It made a fourth-quarter stop that allowed the offense one last chance to tie the game or win it, since Elliott said after he would have attempted a two-point conversion had South Carolina scored on its final possession.
The Gamecocks knew what they were going to get from hyper-athletic Texas A&M freshman quarterback Kyler Murray, but still couldn’t stop him. Murray led the Aggies in rushing (156 yards) and passing (223 yards) in his first collegiate start.
“I was sitting there reading their coaches minds because I was calling their plays,” Elliott said. “We’d walk up there in double A gaps, and I’d say, ‘Here comes speed option.’ I’d say, ‘We’ve got zone read with nobody in the hole weak, he’s going to pull it out and get on the edge.’ I was very impressed. He’s a special athlete.”
The Gamecocks are in last place in the SEC East and play Tennessee and Florida in the next two weeks. They left Texas feeling like they have a chance in both of those games, which is more than they’ve been able to say at points of the season.
“That was a little bit of a disappointing loss, but so many positive came out of that,” freshman wide receiver Hayden Hurst said. “I feel like we are really starting to click and get things rolling.”