In an ugly opener, South Carolina and North Carolina each seemed to improve upon what ailed them last season but struggled elsewhere. Time will tell if either has improved—until then, the Gamecocks are content to walk away with a win.
CHARLOTTE — It’s the quiz show craze that’s sweeping the nation. It’s time to play Guess! Which! Coach! Lost! The! Game?
Coach No. 1: “We did not get it done offensively. That's for sure.”
Coach No. 2: “They got the best of us. Their defense got the best of our offense.”
Coach No. 1: “We know what we’ve got to work on now and where we’ve got to get better.”
Coach No. 2: “We’ve got enough to yell and scream at the entire team.”
I know what you’re thinking. This is no game. This is a trick. Those quotes came from the same person. Nope. Coach No. 1 is North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, whose team lost 17–13 to South Carolina in Thursday’s season opener. Coach No. 2 is Steve Spurrier, whose team probably should have lost but—in a stark reversal from last season—managed to hold a fourth-quarter lead.
There will be no grand pronouncements based on Thursday’s result. We learned that after proclaiming a Heisman winner following South Carolina’s season opener last year. There is only this. South Carolina gagged away fourth-quarter leads in three games (Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee) last season. The Gamecocks had a chance to do the same Thursday as North Carolina faced third-and-goal from the three-yard line. But South Carolina’s Marquavius Lewis flushed North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams from the pocket, and defensive tackle Dante Sawyer dumped Williams at the eight. On the next play, Williams threw an interception to South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore, one that looked like an exact replica of the pick he threw to Moore to torpedo North Carolina’s first drive of the game.
Williams would say later that he was trying to do too much on each of the bookend drive-killers. Fedora would put it more bluntly: “You throw it to the guys in the blue and not in the red. That’s all I can tell you.”
But Spurrier did not take these gift interceptions as a sign that his off-season hiring of Jon Hoke to join Lorenzo Ward as a co-defensive coordinator had magically fixed the issues that caused South Carolina to have a historically bad defense in 2014. Spurrier knew the 13 points the Gamecocks allowed did not square with the 440 yards they allowed. “Four-forty and 13 points,” Spurrier marveled. “See, that doesn't go together.” And Spurrier is correct. Those historically bad 2014 Gamecocks allowed 6.2 yards a play. Thursday, they allowed 6.9.
Nor did North Carolina’s hiring of Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator suddenly make the Tar Heels an impenetrable wall. They can thank the Gamecocks for the fact that they only allowed 17 points, because had South Carolina kept running the sweep to the right that Shon Carson turned into a 48-yard fourth-quarter touchdown, they might still be scoring. The Gamecocks gained chunks of yards every time they ran that play. The only thing that stopped them was their own playcalling. “Every now and then we’d get stupid and run somewhere else,” Spurrier said. “Should have just kept running it there.”
Spurrier and quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus did work some wonders with a crew of signal-callers that can’t throw the way Dylan Thompson did last year. Quarterbacks Connor Mitch and Perry Orth took snaps. So did receiver Pharoh Cooper and tailback Brandon Wilds. And let’s not forget walk-on punter Sean Kelly, who ran a first-quarter fake 17 yards for a first down. Spurrier doesn’t want any of us to forget Kelly, because if not for Kelly, Cooper and Moore, he might not have had anyone to laud. “Give a little praise to the Gamecock punter,” Spurrier commanded. Then he looked over at Josh Kendall, who covers South Carolina for The State newspaper in Columbia. “I’m searching, Josh,” Spurrier cracked. “Searching.”
Spurrier was stingy with the praise because his team can be better. In fact, it must be better if it hopes to compete for an SEC East title. “We know we’re fortunate,” he said. “We’re not going to strut out of here like we're hot stuff.”
Despite all the issues Thursday’s win raised, it was still a win. Ward, who essentially got demoted after those defensive collapses last season, probably understood that better than most. “It went the wrong way several times last year,” Ward said. In the end, a defender made a play. That didn’t happen much last season. The offense grinded out two first downs when it absolutely needed two first downs. That didn’t happen much last season.
Spurrier could joke Thursday night about how the personal foul Mitch picked up for taunting following a first-down throw really didn’t affect the Gamecocks. “We’d have probably found [another] way to go backward,” Spurrier deadpanned. The Head Ball Coach could joke because his team won. That makes the search for answers easier than the one Fedora must embark upon. “We needed to win the football game for where we want to be,” Fedora said. “And we didn’t get it done.”
Still, it was only one game—and an ugly one at that. To attempt to divine any greater truths from it is a fool’s errand. If South Carolina’s red-zone stands and critical late first downs give the Gamecocks confidence the next time they face this situation, then this season could turn out quite differently than last. But if this was the anomaly, then the same questions will rise come December. The same goes for the Tar Heels. If they only allow 17 points in most of their games, they’ll win quite a few more than last year. But unlike the Gamecocks on Thursday, other teams probably will continue to run plays that North Carolina’s defense has demonstrated it cannot stop.
Neither team made a definitive statement Thursday, but there is no question about which team left in a better mood. It was the one with the coach who got to trot out one of his favorite old lines. “The football gods smiled on the Gamecocks tonight,” Spurrier said.