Walking into the locker room for halftime at Vanderbilt Stadium on Thursday night, T.J. Holloman just knew it was coming.
South Carolina was down 10-0 to Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks had more penalties, six, than first downs, four. They had gained 88 yards. Coach Boom was going to go boom, Holloman just knew it.
“We thought he was going to come in there yelling and screaming,” said Holloman, a senior linebacker.
Instead, first-year South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, who made his name good and bad with his fiery demeanor, hardly raised his voice.
“He was very calm, just gave us positive feedback and encouragement and said we’re going to pull this out and finish this,” Holloman said. “That’s what we did.”
South Carolina rallied for 13 unanswered points in the second half to beat Vanderbilt 13-10 and start the season 1-0 overall and 1-0 in the SEC.
“That was unbelievable,” senior quarterback Perry Orth said of his head coach’s halftime calm.
Muschamp had plenty of reasons to lose his cool Thursday night. The Gamecocks almost botched the opening kickoff when redshirt freshman A.J. Turner couldn’t decide whether to bring it out of the end zone or settle for a touchback.
“How many bad things did you write about me after that play?” Muschamp quipped in his postgame interview session.
A veteran offensive line had three penalties on the first two drives of the game. Sophomore Deebo Samuel, who won the starting punt return job because he was more sure-handed in practice than Rashad Fenton, fumbled away the Commodores first punt of the game. Four-star freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain lost a fumble and nearly lost another in the first half.
“Maybe that’s first-game jitters, new offense, whatever, but I was glad we were able to settle down,” said Orth, who started the game and finished 11-of-19 passing for 152 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Despite all those jitters from his team, Muschamp remained mostly stone-faced on the sideline, adding the occasional encouraging clap for his players.
“Coach told us to keep our heads up, and we were going to go out there in the second half and make it a ball game,” Samuel said.
The Gamecocks outgained the Commodores 221 to 133 in the second half and committed only one penalty in the final 30 minutes (an intentional delay of a game in a punting situation). South Carolina’s game-winning drive started on its 27-yard line with 3:44 left in the game. Orth was 1-of-2 passing for 16 yards and Turner rushed three times for 21 yards on the final drive to set up Fry’s field goal attempt with 35 seconds remaining.
“We do situational stuff every single day for moments like that,” Orth said. “We practice that literally every single day. That’s just kind of how we felt and played all through camp so it was good to see us do that in a real game.”
The one-minute and end-of-game simulations South Carolina has done throughout fall camp helped put the Gamecocks players at ease in the fourth quarter Thursday night, senior offensive lineman Mason Zandi said.
“We really appreciate Coach Muschamp and this staff and what they have been able to do and come in and take a group and teach us effort and toughness and discipline,” Zandi said. “We are grateful to them. It’s just a great feeling of momentum going forward. We have a whole host of talented guys. We are a little undiscovered, but as you can see, we can compete in this conference.”