Southeastern Conference schools never want their football teams in the position of being judged based on what happens against Vanderbilt, but that’s where South Carolina found itself on Sept. 1, 2016.
The Gamecocks were coming off a 3-9 season and had just hired Will Muschamp as their head coach, a decision that was widely questioned not just from the outside but from within the program’s fan base as well.
“You were hearing a lot from Gamecock fans that people were nervous, didn’t know if he was the right fit,” said Elliott Fry, the former South Carolina kicker who would prove so important on that September night.
Muschamp had been fired two years prior after four years at Florida and he would start his Gamecocks career on the road against an SEC opponent with a team that had ended the previous season with five straight losses, including one to The Citadel.
The 3-9 season had followed a 7-6 season that had followed an 11-2 season. South Carolina players, frankly, were wondering the same thing South Carolina fans were wondering.
“It just progressively got worse,” Fry said. “I remember thinking every year, ‘It can’t get any worse,’ and it just kept gradually getting worse.”
The Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 SEC) head back to Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday for the first time since that 2016 game. On their last trip, Vanderbilt was heading into head coach Derek Mason’s third year and would go on to beat Georgia and Tennessee that season.
The game started exactly the way Gamecocks fans had feared. South Carolina trailed 10-0 at halftime. It had 63 yards at the time. Its first eight offensive possessions ended with a punt or a fumble. True freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain played. Sophomore wide receiver Deebo Samuel fumbled away the Commodores’ first punt of the game.
“We didn’t start out really good,” Muschamp remembered this week.
Things began to turn around in the second half, though. Fry hit a 48-yard field goal in third quarter and Samuel redeemed himself with an 8-yard touchdown run with 7:30 left in the game to tie the score at 10-10. After Samuel’s touchdown, Vanderbilt drove 49 yards in seven plays, but place-kicker Tommy Openshaw missed a 45-yard attempt that would have given the Commodores the lead.
South Carolina got the ball back with 3:44 remaining at its own 27-yard line. A 16-yard pass from Perry Orth to Bryan Edwards and a 17-yard run by A.J. Turner helped move the Gamecocks to the Vanderbilt 36-yard line. Muschamp and Fry had discussed before the game the possibility of a game-ending field goal situation, and this was right on the edge of the distance they had both decided was within a comfortable range.
It would be a 54-yard field goal from that point, the longest of Fry’s career. Muschamp called one more play on third down to help bleed time off the clock and hopefully advance a few more critical yards. Instead, an Orth rush lost 1 yard.
Muschamp remembered this week that Fry expressed his disappointment with the play using creative language on the sideline. Fry acknowledged as much.
“We could have just run up and kneeled it,” Fry said. “I remember being a little annoyed.”
His concern was not that he couldn’t hit the kick but that Muschamp would decide not to give him a chance at a 55-yarder. Thirty-five seconds remained in the game when Muschamp decided to send Fry out for the attempt.
“The whole second half, I was feeling like it was going to come down to me,” Fry said.
In fact, he was hoping it would. Fry, a senior that season, had started four straight years for the Gamecocks and would leave as the school’s all-time leading scorer, but he had never hit a game-winning kick in his football career.
“I remember going into my senior year and worrying, ‘What if I never get to have that moment?’ ” he said. “It wasn’t a 29-yard chip shot either. It was a nice big one so that was a plus.”
Unlike in the third quarter, Fry had a wind he estimates at 5 mph at his back in the fourth quarter.
“I felt really relaxed, really confident in that kick,” he said. “I had hit that 48- or 49-yarder into the wind. Anytime you hit one like that into the wind and then turn around and go with the wind, it makes it feel a lot easier. It’s kind of like driving the golf ball into the wind and then turning around on the next hole and you’ve got the wind going with you. You feel like you can swing as hard as you want and it’ll go straight.”
It did, splitting the uprights as the second longest kick in school history and giving South Carolina a 13-10 win that would ease the angst of South Carolina fans and propel Muschamp eventually to a bowl game in his first season.
Quarterback Jake Bentley’s college career wouldn’t start on the field for another six games when he took over as the team’s starter at the midpoint of the season, but he was on the sideline that night for the first collegiate game of his career.
“It’s crazy to think about that because that feels long ago,” Bentley said this week. “I know the whole team had faith that we were going to make (the kick). Just a really exciting feeling to be able to fight the whole game and for Elliott to put it through for us. I think it was huge. Getting a big win, SEC win his very first game here kind of jump started Coach Muschamp’s career here. There are a lot more games to play. He’ll be the first one to tell you that, but it was huge for him and huge for us to go get that win.”
Muschamp doesn’t downplay the significance of the game.
“You have to have some positive reinforcement, and part of that’s winning,” Muschamp said. “You can’t continue to coach and practice and prepare and work out the way we work out if you don’t have some self-gratification of a victory and you’re feeling that positive reinforcement. That’s what you’re out there to go do, and that’s win the game.”
The Gamecocks finished that regular season 6-6 and ended up 6-7 after dropping a bowl game against South Florida. The next season they finished 9-4, and this year they are 1-1 headed back to Nashville, Tenn., to play the Commodores. Regardless of the outcome, the game probably won’t have the impact that first one did.
“That validated that, ‘Maybe we can go up from here, maybe we stop regressing,’ ” Fry said. “That was the switch. In the moment nobody is thinking, ‘We have to beat Vandy,’ but looking back on it, it played a big part.”