South Carolina, finally, closed the door on N.C. State Saturday and thereby opened up more possibilities for its 2017 season.
The Gamecocks (1-0) were five-point underdogs in the Belk College Kickoff based mostly on the fact that the Wolfpack are in Year 5 of coach Dave Doeren’s tenure while USC is in Year 2 of coach Will Muschamp’s rebuilding project. However, instead of Doeren getting the kind of win his program had seemed to be building toward, Muschamp got one that could change the complexion of his team’s season.
It wasn’t decisive – South Carolina survived 35-28 despite being outgained 504 yards to 246 yards – but it did point in a new direction for a program that was 9-16 the past two seasons.
Even with a competitive loss Saturday, Gamecocks fans could convince themselves that better things were ahead with a schedule that has Missouri, Kentucky and Louisiana Tech on the near horizon. With a win, suddenly a 4-0 start seems possible if not probable, and if South Carolina can get a third of the way through its season without a loss, who knows how many victories it might stack up.
“I do think when you play a team like this, in this setting, you find out a lot about your football team,” Muschamp said, “and we have a good football team.”
The Gamecocks looked ready to run away with the game in the third quarter as they built 35-21 lead, but a muffed punt return by Chris Lammons flipped the game’s field position and momentum and forced USC to hold onto until the final 15 seconds, when it successfully defended two throws into the end zone from the 10-yard line.
“It definitely gives us a sense of confidence because we know who we played against tonight, so we know how good we can do,” left tackle Malik Young said. “It’s a measuring stick on how well we can play. It lets us know how good we are.”
“It sets the tone for our season,” agreed quarterback Jake Bentley, who had 215 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Muschamp enjoyed watching his team celebrate the win in the locker room afterward.
“Anytime you invest a lot, which our players certainly have, they need to get some return on the investment,” he said. “When they put in a lot, they need to feel gratification in that locker room, and that’s one of the best feelings you have as a coach for a player.”
Then he stressed to them that the commitment needed to win this game would need to be carried through 11 more.
“At the end of the day, it counts as one,” he said. “We’ll enjoy it tonight, and we’ll get back to work tomorrow. We have a lot of corrections to make.”
That season continues next week against Missouri, which had 815 yards and scored 72 points (but also surrendered 492 and 43) against Missouri State on Saturday. The Gamecocks would do well to get as many wins as they can in the front half of the season because the back half still contains trips to Tennessee and Georgia and visits from Florida and Clemson, but Saturday’s result rightfully gives them the idea that they could do more than break even in 2017.
“We’ve got to improve in a lot of areas,” Muschamp said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be about our preparation, and I think our players now are starting to understand about preparation, about practice, about walk-throughs, about meetings and how critical those are.”
Saturday was a happy lesson in that.