The Ryan Hilinski era started with a bang Saturday with the true freshman tossing two touchdown passes in his first career start to lead South Carolina to a 72-10 win over Charleston Southern at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Replacing injured starter Jake Bentley, Hilinski was sharp and accurate from the outset, completing 22 of 27 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns in the first half to stake South Carolina to a 44-3 halftime lead.
He finished the game 24 of 30 for 282 yards, two touchdowns and one interception as the Gamecocks rolled up a school-record 775 yards of total offense and scored the most points in the Will Muschamp era and the fifth-most in program history.
“I thought we came out of the chute well offensively," Muschamp said. "I thought Ryan played extremely well in the game. He started 12-for-12 and was very accurate with the football and quick with his decisions and decisive where he was taking the football, and we played well around him.
“He played well for his first start."
Bentley, a senior and three-year starter, suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot on the final play of the season-opening game against North Carolina and will be out for at least six weeks. His absence gave Hilinski and fellow freshman Dakereon Joyner a chance to strut their stuff against Charleston Southern, an FCS opponent, and both showed out in the first half.
Hilinski was on target from the start, completing his first 12 passes on mostly quick, short passes in the flat and over the middle. He led the Gamecocks on a quick, 70-yard scoring drive on their first possession, with Rico Dowdle getting the touchdown on a 3-yard run.
He then completed four straight passes — two to running back Tavien Feaster — before Dowdle busted loose on a 35-yard run. Hilinski then followed Dowdle into the end zone on a 4-yard run, capping his first career touchdown by celebrating with fans in the south end zone.
On South Carolina’s next possession, it was Joyner’s turn to electrify fans. On his first snap under center, the redshirt freshman from North Charleston broke loose on a tackle-breaking, 41-yard run down the left sideline to the Charleston Southern 6-yard line. Two players later, he scampered into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
Hilinski then re-entered the game and cranked up the passing game again, connecting with tight end Kyle Markway and wide receiver OrTre Smith before finding Bryan Edwards over the middle for a 10-yard touchdown pass. Edwards’ 17th career touchdown reception came on Hilinski’s first career TD pass and capped a 61-yard scoring drive.
On South Carolina’s next possession, the duo hooked up again, with Hilinski showing he can also air it out. On second down, Hilinski found Edwards on a post route down the middle of the field and hit him in stride for a 60-yard touchdown.
Hilinski celebrated his first big play and long touchdown pass by pointing to the sky and flashing three fingers in honor of his late brother Tyler, who also wore No. 3 at Washington State.
Muschamp was pleased with how Hilinski handled the pressure of his first career start at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Obviously you always have to take the quality of the opponent [into consideration], but I thought he handled himself extremely well for a first start," he said. "I have had defensive players and players that played other positions offensively have nerves walking out there in that environment. Obviously he handled the moment extremely well and will continue to progress and do the things he feels comfortable with moving forward. Because he is so bright and intelligent, he will be able to handle a lot."
Edwards also bounced back with a big game after catching just one pass for seven yards last week against North Carolina. He led the Gamecocks with five catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns to move into third on the all-time list with 18 career touchdown receptions.
"We have to get the ball to Bryan Edwards. We have to put him in situations where he is getting the ball. We have to put Shi Smith in situations where he is getting the ball," Muschamp said. "Coming out of that game [last week], that is something that I demanded. They are really good players and … we’ve got to be able to know they are getting the ball regardless of the call and the situation."
Joyner took over for Hilinski late in the third quarter and led South Carolina on its last two scoring drives. He rushed four times for 53 yards, caught one pass for 12 yards and completed his only pass.
A week after a disappointing 24-20 loss to North Carolina in Charlotte, South Carolina got back on track by thoroughly dominating the Buccaneers, who had to practice in Columbia this week after being evacuated due to Hurricane Dorian.
The Gamecocks scored six touchdowns in the first half and went ahead 51-3 on freshman Kevin Harris' first career touchdown with 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter. It marked the most points ever scored in the Muschamp era.
“All in all, I thought it was a good day, and it should have been a good day considering our opponent," Muschamp said. “Pleased with the day, pleased with the production we were able to have and we need to continue to improve and get better."
South Carolina rolled up 493 yards rushing and scored eight rushing touchdowns, capped by TD runs of 57 yards by Mon Denson and 46 yards by Harris in the fourth quarter. Harris then added a 75-yard TD run with 2:35 remaining to lead the Gamecocks with 147 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
The defense also played well, holding Charleston Southern to 267 yards of total offense and forcing three turnovers. It was a much better performance all around than the season-opener against North Carolina, when the Gamecocks gave up 483 yards of total offense and blew a 20-9 fourth-quarter lead.
“I think we are much better than how we played last week," Muschamp said. "I think we made some good adjustments up front on the offensive line that helped us. It will show next week how far we have come."
The Gamecocks play host to No. 2 Alabama next Saturday.