David Cloninger

Pharoh Cooper provides punch in Elliott’s debut

South Carolina wide receiver Pharoh Cooper scores a touchdown on a catch in the second half.
South Carolina wide receiver Pharoh Cooper scores a touchdown on a catch in the second half. gmelendez@thestate.com

Shawn Elliott tried to give South Carolina a sorely-needed kick in the rear.

Pharoh Cooper delivered it.

The Gamecocks’ most electrifying player reversed what was trending to be a sour afternoon by slipping a tackle and gliding 78 yards for a third-quarter touchdown Saturday, leading USC to a had-to-have 19-10 win over Vanderbilt.

While Elliott’s steel-burning glare and charge through the pregame tunnel was great theater, his debut as head coach was going exactly like his predecessor’s last six games – some nice moments, but an overall lack of talent had USC trailing.

It was the main storyline in a week full of them: Could Elliott turn it around? A fresh voice sometimes works – Ed Orgeron guided a very strong Southern Cal team to a 6-2 record a couple of years ago after Lane Kiffin torched himself out of another job.

Here, there was no doubt the Gamecocks would have energy and passion, but with Lorenzo Nunez out and leaving Elliott’s zone-read on the wheels of the statue-esque Perry Orth, the offense was relying on Elliott Fry’s leg. The defense was its usual, although it made a few more plays than it recently has – the Cover-2 left the middle of the field wide-open and Johnny McCrary and his receivers noticed.

Cooper’s TD, while USC was trailing 10-6, did more for the Gamecocks than fiery words and head-butting a lineman ever could. All of a sudden, USC was ahead and believed. No more of the “Here we go again” of the first six weeks.

The defense got three interceptions. Even an Orth pick, which could have been the back-breaker, was returned to the Gamecocks one play later. The infamous option pitch that, among other things, knocked USC’s starting QB out for half the year (and resulted in a fumble Saturday) actually worked.

And even with Vanderbilt driving late while trailing nine, Skai Moore made sure the game wasn’t lost. He blitzed, knocked the ball loose and fell on it.

The Gamecocks, who still treat red-zone possessions like the swine flu has swarmed the ball, still have much to work on. But their new coach is now (by percentage) the winningest coach in school history, they have two weeks to prepare for Texas A&M and if nothing else, they know the plan going forward.

Get the ball to Pharoh. And go find some Pharohs in recruiting next week.