It’s stressful on a tightrope.
A tiny misstep this way and you’re a goner. A bobble the other? Same thing. Goner.
That’s the story of South Carolina’s football team in 2016. The Gamecocks aren’t quite goners yet, but at the halfway point of the season they’re teetering on the brink. South Carolina bombed on the two most fundamental pillars of the game Sunday in a 28-14 loss to Georgia.
Run the ball? The Gamecocks gained 30 yards on the ground.
Stop the run? The Bulldogs had 326 rushing yards.
Even the coach didn’t escape unscathed. Will Muschamp showed up for his postgame press conference with a bandage under his nose that was covering a cut that could be seen bleeding on the sideline during the game.
“I got cut somewhere on the sideline,” was all he offered as an explanation for the scrape.
The Gamecocks (2-4 overall, 1-4 SEC) are 3-15 in their past 18 SEC games. Teams in that type of rebuilding project have almost no margin for error, and so it is with South Carolina. The fact the Gamecocks were within a touchdown in the final two minutes is a testament to their fortitude, but only makes the final result that much more painful.
Muschamp’s postgame press conferences seem to be getting shorter and shorter. At some point, why do the questions matter if there aren’t any answers? The Gamecocks made another change at quarterback Sunday, inserting senior Perry Orth in place of freshman Brandon McIlwain.
The results were exactly the same. South Carolina scored 14 points, its average coming into the game, which, oh by the way, is the worst scoring average of the 128 FBS teams in the country. Alabama’s defense and special teams have scored the same amount of touchdowns this year as South Carolina’s offense (nine).
With McIlwain, the Gamecocks can run the ball a little and not throw it at all. With Orth, they can throw it a little and not run it at all. South Carolina averaged 1.2 yards per carry against the Bulldogs.
“What we’re doing is not working,” Muschamp said. “You can’t continue to do the same things. So… Right now, with where we are with the quarterback position, Perry is further along throwing the football; Brandon is further along with what we can do in the run game. When you are not able to run the football, you have to be able to throw it some and you have to be able to get in the right looks to get the ball vertically down the field, which we did at times, not consistently enough, that’s kind of where we are right now.”
Short of fusing those two players into one person, what’s the fix for that situation? The Gamecocks have tried the zone read to improve their running game. They have tried power runs. Sunday, they tried the option. And fumbled.
“I’m not really sure. It’s really confusing, honestly,” Orth said when asked about the offense. “It has been all year. The play-calling’s been good. We got players who can make plays. It just hasn’t been clicking, and I’m not sure why. But hopefully we’ll figure it out.”
The defense has its own intractable issues. All the talk of progress on that side of the ball was muted by the 6.5 yards per carry Georgia averaged on the ground. The Bulldogs only completed five passes for 29 yards – and still manhandled the Gamecocks defense.
“It’s very, very frustrating to know something is coming and not be able to stop it. That’s very frustrating,” Muschamp said. “You have to play a block and you have to tackle. You can stunt and do as much of that stuff as you want, which we did today, but eventually you have to get off a block and you have to tackle a guy, which has been an issue here for a long time. That’s something we are dealing with and we’re trying our best to work through.”
Inability to tackle is a tough thing to “work through” though.
The Gamecocks can’t even get their punt return game settled. They tried five players at that position and can’t find a solution. Sunday, they started sure-handed tight end Hayden Hurst, but he lost the job in the second half after failing to field a punt that rolled inside the South Carolina 10-yard line.
“I figured a Division I program, we’d have somebody that could catch a punt,” Muschamp said.
At punt return and everywhere else, it seems, the Gamecocks are searching for the same answers they’ve been searching for since Week 1.
So far, they aren’t finding the any answers.