Josh Kendall

Payback from last season is sweet for the Gamecocks

USC quarterback Connor Mitch tip-toes the sideline on a keeper in the first half of Thursday’s win against North Carolina.
USC quarterback Connor Mitch tip-toes the sideline on a keeper in the first half of Thursday’s win against North Carolina. gmelendez@thestate.com

The 2014 season didn’t wait long to give one back to South Carolina.

After manufacturing losses in some highly improbable ways last season, the Gamecocks somehow stitched a victory out of a thin thread in Bank of America Stadium Thursday night. They survived a wobbly offense, a first-half defense that looked too much like last year’s version, eight penalties and the North Carolina Tar Heels to win their season opener 17-13.

“We are very pleased that we won a ballgame, but we were very fortunate,” coach Steve Spurrier said. “We are not strutting out of here like we are hot stuff.”

He is smiling, though. Spurrier improved to 24-2 all-time in season-openers and 6-0 all-time against the Tar Heels. His Gamecocks have won 20 of their last 21 non-conference games.

“The football gods smiled on the Gamecocks tonight,” Spurrier said.

South Carolina surrendered 440 yards in Jon Hoke’s debut as co-coordinator but didn’t allow a point in the second half.

“Four-hundred-forty yards and 13 points. That doesn’t go together,” Spurrier said.

The Gamecocks had 394 yards.

“Felt like we made about 200,” Spurrier said.

South Carolina snapped the ball to five offensive players — starting quarterback Connor Mitch, backup quarterback Perry Orth, wide receiver Pharoh Cooper and tailbacks Brandon Wilds and David Williams — and that doesn’t count walk-on punter Sean Kelly, who gained 17 yards on a fake punt from deep in the Gamecocks’ territory in the first half.

“That’s sort of what you do when you’re not a good passing team,” Spurrier said of his quarterback-by-committee approach.

Mitch was 9-for-22 for 127 yards and one touchdown in his first collegiate start. Spurrier blamed himself more than his quarterback for the 140 passing yards, South Carolina's lowest total since Nov. 17, 2012 against Wofford (122 yards). Even Pharoh Cooper couldn’t get unleashed. He caught three passes for 45 yards, one of six quiet catches by the wide receivers.

“I think I called a lousy game,” Spurrier said.

South Carolina’s only second-half drive that covered more than 34 yards was the decisive, four-play, 64-yard drive that gave them their first lead of the game, 17-13, with 12:45 remaining, and 48 yards of that came on one run by third-string (for now) tailback Shon Carson.

On the plus side, the Gamecocks managed a feat they couldn’t last season, closing the game out on offense. After Skai Moore picked off his second pass in the end zone to give South Carolina the ball with 3:29 remaining, the Gamecocks picked up two first downs on five consecutive running plays to run out the clock.

The defense forced four turnovers (three interceptions and one turnover on downs) and held the Tar Heels scoreless in the second half. That’s the good news. The bad is the Gamecocks did it with some inexplicable help from North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams and they gave up 7 yards per play for the game. (That would have ranked dead last in the NCAA for the season last year.).

“He threw it to the guys in the red and not the blue,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said. “I don’t have an answer for you. If I would have an answer, I would have gotten it changed.”

“We have plenty to yell and scream at the whole team about,” Spurrier said.

It’s better to try to figure out how on earth your team won a game than trying to figure out how on earth it lost one like South Carolina did so many times last season, but what these Gamecocks are able to do with Thursday night’s good fortune remains an open question.

“I think North Carolina is a good team,” Spurrier said. “I think they are going to beat a lot of people.”

The Gamecocks might or might not.

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