David Cloninger

Run the ball, and stick with it

Running back Brandon Wilds should be a focus of South Carolina’s offense against the Tar Heels today.
Running back Brandon Wilds should be a focus of South Carolina’s offense against the Tar Heels today. mbergen@thestate.com

I’ve addressed it plenty of times so I won’t mention the Tommy Beecher similarities (but man, is that No. 6 jersey looking plenty eerie right about now).

The biggest questions going into today’s season-opener each revolve around quarterback, though, and they are: What do the Gamecocks do if Connor Mitch is ineffective, injured or some combination of the two; and where is the line drawn between letting Mitch get his feet wet and giving him the best scenarios in which to win, and still winning the game?

The first:

Mitch may stay in even if he is ineffective because it’s the only way to see if he’ll grow in the role. It’s not like there’s a proven backup (outside of Pharoh Cooper). There isn’t a mark on the leash where Steve Spurrier can say "No more" and yank Mitch because he’d be starting behind Square One if he went with someone else.

Mitch kind of has to stay in. Any game rep is a good thing and can only help in the future. And he may end up being exactly what he was in high school – an immense talent capable of putting up eye-popping numbers any time he steps on the field.

That leads directly into the second – Spurrier and his staff are going to give Mitch the best chance to win. There are several ways to do it.

As long as they stick with it.

The Gamecocks’ deepest and most experienced offensive position is running back. Brandon Wilds and David Williams are game-changers, too, able to take over and provide the best of all outcomes.

They run the ball, score some points and keep North Carolina’s offense off the field. Spurrier can help out Mitch by not asking him to do much other than hand off. He can stack the line with his tight end (now Ulric Jones?) staying home to block, or putting in his fullback; when he wants Mitch to throw, he can tell Jerell Adams to run the Jay Novacek Buttonhook, good for 8-10 yards every time, or screen to Cooper or one of the other speedsters and let them run with it. Eventually, there will be a time where Cooper is locked into one-on-one coverage on a deep route and the safety’s leaning toward the other side of the field; all Mitch has to do is throw as hard as he can and it’s at least a 75 percent shot that Cooper will come down with it.

Those are all great plans. Mitch is allowed to get comfortable and be really ready for the Gamecocks’ SEC opener in Week 2 and there’s no need to worry about his mentality going to Beecherland. He may look rough but he’ll get better, and if the plan also nets a win, so much the better.

But.

We all know of Spurrier’s legendary impatience, and that’s the biggest factor in this game. And it’s going to be tested by something he has no control over.

Gamecocks win the coin toss and score first, plans proceed as written.

Tar Heels win the coin toss and score first, especially a touchdown, and … hold on.

Spurrier gets behind early and his first impulse has been, "Got to get it even. Now." It’s much like his tendency to always go for the throat after an opponent commits a turnover in his territory. As willing as he was to change his long-standing style at USC after Florida, he still holds onto a few peccadilloes, and those are two big ones.

USC’s behind 7-0 early, I’m wondering if Spurrier will have the patience to run the ball, to give Mitch safe passes, to not try to test out that revamped UNC defense with a deep pass to his most electrifying player. Hey, the house don’t win every gamble.

But it wins a lot, which brings the Beecher situation hurtling back to the front.

And we all saw plenty of that the first time.

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FIRST SCORES OF THE SPURRIER ERA

Date, Opponent: Play

2005, UCF: Noah Whiteside 49-yard pass from Blake Mitchell

2006, Mississippi State: Ryan Succop 39-yard field goal

2007, Louisiana-Lafayette: Andy Boyd 2-yard pass from Chris Smelley

2008, NC State: Ryan Succop 29-yard field goal

2009, NC State: Brian Maddox 1-yard run

2010, Southern Miss: Stephen Garcia 22-yard run

2011, East Carolina: Stephen Garcia 32-yard run

2012, Vanderbilt: Marcus Lattimore 29-yard run

2013, North Carolina: Shaq Roland 65-yard pass from Connor Shaw

2014, Texas A&M: Nick Jones 69-yard pass from Dylan Thompson

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