South Carolina started the Will Muschamp era off on the right foot.
Specifically, it was Elliott Fry’s foot. The Gamecocks senior place-kicker hit a career-long, 55-yard field goal with 35 seconds left to erase a lot of sins and give South Carolina a 13-10 win over Vanderbilt.
“I had total confidence the guy would hit the thing,” Muschamp said. “He’s a really good kicker. We are going to have to win some games like this. That’s kind of our MO right now.”
That modus operandi might wreck the collective blood pressure of South Carolina’s fan base over the next three months, but everything’s good at the moment as the Gamecocks are 1-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC heading into next week’s game at Mississippi State.
Thanks to Fry. The 6-foot, 170-pound Texan came into the game with a career-long of 52 yards, but Muschamp and special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler had a pregame conversation in which Hutzler told him he felt comfortable with Fry kicking a 55- or 56-yarder into the closed end of Vanderbilt’s stadium if the situation arose.
“We did not feel as good going the other way,” Muschamp said. “We felt good from that range because of the wind. I can’t tell you how many times he’s hit that field goal (in practice). And I know for a fact having scouted South Carolina he’s hit them before. I had total confidence in him.”
Fry’s kick provided a happy ending to a frustrating night for the Gamecocks, who committed five penalties in the first half, turned the ball over twice, gained only 88 yards in the first half and dropped too many passes.
“It didn’t start pretty,” Muschamp said, but “you can’t coach guts. You can’t coach toughness. You can’t coach relentless attitude, and that’s what our guy’s got.”
The Gamecocks trailed 10-0 at halftime and didn’t score their first point until Fry hit a 48-yard field with 6:16 left in the third quarter. They trailed 10-3 until Deebo Samuel ran for an 8-yard score with 7:30 left in the game. Vanderbilt junior place-kicker Tommy Openshaw missed a 45-yard field goal with 3:44 left in the game to set up South Carolina’s game-winning drive.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our coaching staff and our entire strength staff and the preparation for the first game and how our guys responded in a very hostile situation,” Muschamp said. “It didn’t go well early and I’ll be honest, it was one of the things I told our staff, ‘I’m really worried if it doesn’t go well early. How will we respond? I have no idea. And they responded the way you respond.’”
The Gamecocks started senior Perry Orth at quarterback and brought in freshman Brandon McIlwain on the third series of the game. McIlwain played four series to Orth’s two in the first half but the Gamecocks went with Orth for the entire second half after McIlwain lost one fumble and almost lost another in the first half.
Orth finished 11-of-19 passing for 152 yards and eight yards rushing. McIlwain finished 5-of-11 passing for 35 yards and rushed seven times for 29 yards. Immediately after the game, Muschamp was unwilling to commit to a quarterback plan for the future, but it sounds like the Gamecocks will be rotating signal-callers into the foreseeable future.
“We are going to need Brandon McIlwain to play well for us this year,” Muschamp said.
The Gamecocks gained 214 of their 308 total yards on their final five drives of the game (and one of those was a 4-yard drive to kill the clock at the end of the game).
“Extremely proud of our players,” Muschamp said. “A really gutsy performance. We will build on this. There are so many things we can correct. They always say you improve the most from your first game to your second, I hope so. We need to.”