One game into the season, and South Carolina still has two quarterbacks.
Senior Perry Orth started and finished Thursday night’s 13-10 win over Vanderbilt, but freshman Brandon McIlwain did enough during his four series to show coaches their practice impressions of him were correct.
“We wanted to see how things went with Perry, and we wanted to get Brandon in in the first quarter and give him an opportunity,” USC coach Will Muschamp said. “He deserves to play. He deserves to start, too.”
The final determination to start Orth wasn’t based on separation between the two in practice, because there was little. Instead, it was based on seniority, Muschamp said. Outside the quarterback position, South Carolina started just one offensive player with more than five career starts against the Commodores.
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“I didn’t want to put Brandon in that situation,” Muschamp said. “I don’t think it’s good to put a young quarterback in that situation and for him to lose confidence. We are going to need Brandon McIlwain to play well for us this year, and I didn’t think that was fair to him.”
Orth looked like the veteran of the pair Thursday. He completed 11-of-19 passes for 152 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. McIlwain, who entered on the third series of the game and played the final four series of the first half, completed 5-of-11 passes for 35 yards and added 29 rushing yards. Orth led all three of South Carolina’s scoring drives. McIlwain’s best possession was his second of the game, in which the Gamecocks ran eight plays for 31 yards.
Muschamp was unwilling immediately after the Vanderbilt game to talk about how the quarterback rotation might look against Mississippi State on Saturday.
“We will bounce some things around, but we are going to do what it takes to win games,” he said.
Orth, who played the entire second half, said he and McIlwain were told “a week ago” how the rotation for the first game would go.
“I just went out there and tried to help us win the ballgame,” he said. “Not so much about me, just trying to help our team win, because at the end of the day that’s all anybody really cares about.”
Orth doesn’t begrudge McIlwain the playing time.
“He deserves to play,” Orth said. “He showed some signs where he is going to be a big-time player for us, and he’s going to continue to play throughout the course of the season.”
McIlwain’s biggest fault was ball security. He didn’t throw any interceptions, but fumbled once and dropped another ball that was reviewed but ruled not a fumble.
“We moved the football with Brandon. We have to take care of the football. That’s why we went back with Perry in the second half,” Muschamp said.
The Gamecocks didn’t make the quarterbacks “live” during fall camp, meaning they couldn’t be tackled to the ground during practice. The decision kept the quarterbacks healthy, but might not have adequately prepared McIlwain for the contact of his first game, Muschamp said.
“We did thud tackle the quarterbacks in drill work, so they would get hit with the ball in their hand,” he said. “Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough coaching job.”
The Gamecocks finished with 308 yards of total offense – 187 through the air and 121 on the ground.
Offensive coordinator Kurt “Roper put together a good plan for us, and I just tried to come out and execute it,” Orth said. “It was good to show that we’re capable of moving the ball.”
The number that Orth was happiest with from the night was one.
“Being 1-0, you have a completely different outlook going to the next game. Your confidence is high,” he said. “We struggled a lot last year during the closing moments of the game, so it was good to see us pull through and come out with a win.”