Josh Kendall

Gamecocks’ passing game needs to get SEC-ready

USC quarterback Connor Mitch looks to run in the first half of the Belk College Kickoff in Charlotte.
USC quarterback Connor Mitch looks to run in the first half of the Belk College Kickoff in Charlotte.

Connor Mitch’s hand cramped. His calf cramped. He bruised his hip. And he completed nine passes in 60 minutes.

It could have been a lot worse for South Carolina, though. All the evidence Gamecocks fans needed of that was on the opposite sideline Thursday night.

North Carolina senior Marquise Williams, who is fifth in his school’s history in passing yards, threw three interceptions that paved the way for South Carolina’s 17-13 victory.

“I kept thinking he was going to get it going,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said.

He never did.

Mitch, however, a sophomore making his first career start, did get better as the game progressed. After a disjointed 0-for-5 start, he completed 9-of-17 passes for 122 yards and one touchdown. It wasn’t an intimidating line, but it didn’t feature any interceptions or any passes that easily could have been intercepted either. Mitch also was the victim of at least three dropped passes.

“Obviously, I did not get off to the start I wanted to or even the offense as a whole,” he said. “After that, I was happy with the way we managed the game and the way we moved the ball during the second half during the run game.”

The slow start wasn’t nerves, said Mitch, who won the job in a four-man competition in the preseason.

“You cannot get nervous,” he said. “It is more excited than anything. I think I was just a little too amped to go out there.”

Head coach Steve Spurrier was not unhappy with his first-time starter, but with his overall passing game. The Gamecocks’ 140 passing yards were their fewest since 2012 and the 10th-lowest total in the Spurrier era. And that came against a North Carolina defense that finished No. 104 in the nation against the pass last year.

“Our passing game was not very good as all of you know,” Spurrier said. “We have to find a way to hit some passes somewhere down the field. We will work on it and see if we can get better.”

The most troubling part of the passing game was the inability of South Carolina’s wide receivers, even All-SEC junior Pharoh Cooper, to become a major factor. The wide receivers combined for six catches for 78 yards with Cooper (three catches for 45 yards) doing most of that work.

“We’ve gotta get (Mitch) somebody open,” Spurrier said. “I don’t think we had a lot of good plays. They covered us.”

That must change if Spurrier is going to have the offense he wants and if Mitch is going to develop beyond what at the moment is a 41 percent passer.

“There is still a lot to work on for starters,” Mitch said.

However, immediately after the game and later on his Twitter account, Mitch made the point that the Gamecocks are 1-0 at the moment.

“That is what we want, I think,” Mitch said. “We have to get ready for Kentucky.”

That means getting the passing game SEC-ready.