Saturday’s loss to North Carolina was one of the low points of head coach Will Muschamp’s career.
The Gamecocks were expected to have their best team in Muschamp’s four years, yet they blew a 20-9 third-quarter lead and lost to North Carolina 24-20. It was their fourth loss in the last six games and the second straight poor performance at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
The offense managed just 270 yards of total offense and Jake Bentley struggled and threw two fourth-quarter interceptions after throwing 14 last season. The offense was gashed in the second half, giving up 483 yards of total offense, much of it on two 90-plus-yard fourth-quarter scoring drives.
So much went wrong on Saturday, it’s hard to find to many positives from the season opener.
“We lost. There ain’t no bright spots,” wide receiver Bryan Edwards said.
Yet there were some positive things to build on as South Carolina tries to put the devastating loss behind it and move forward. Here’s a look at a few positives the Gamecocks can glean from an otherwise lackluster performance.
The Clemson transfer led the Gamecocks with 74 yards rushing on 13 carries (5.5 yards per carry) and scored South Carolina’s first touchdown on a nifty 34-yard touchdown run. It was South Carolina’s longest touchdown run since Tyson Williams’ 35-yarder against Louisiana Tech in 2018.
Feaster and Rico Dowdle both ran hard and Feaster showed the burst and explosiveness South Carolina needs at running back. If the offensive line improves and rebounds from a terrible start, the running game has potential to be much improved.
South Carolina had questions at tight end after the loss of senior starter Kiel Pollard but Markway showed he can be a weapon in the passing game. The redshirt junior had two catches for 37 yards and scored Carolina’s second touchdown on a 22-yard reception. He also had a 15-yard catch for a first down on the scoring drive.
The Gamecocks targeted Markway again on their final drive of the game but Bentley’s pass was picked off.
“We ran that play a lot and it was working for us, it’s been a great play for us,” Markway said. “They brought the safeties down and they were ready and they made a good play.”
Markway proved he can make big catches and be a threat in the Gamecock passing game.
The return game
South Carolina clearly missed Deebo Samuel, but the Gamecocks continued to make big plays in the return game. Edwards, who had just one reception for seven yards, had 66 yards on three punt returns. His 38-yard return late in the game gave South Carolina good field position on a drive that ended with a Bentley interception.
Shi Smith also had a 60-yard kickoff return to set up South Carolina’s second touchdown.
Jones made his first career start at middle linebacker and was South Carolina’s best defensive player, collecting 12 tackles and two pass breakups, including one in the end zone.
The defense played well in the first half, holding North Carolina to two field goals until self-destructing in the second half. Jones was in on several big plays and emerged as a leader of the defense.
South Carolina sorely missed Wonnum when he missed five games with injury last season. He was dominant at times in his return Saturday, collecting seven tackles and a team-high three tackles for loss.
The Gamecocks clearly need to keep Wonnum healthy and on the field.
Kinlaw was a beast in the first half wreaked havoc on the North Carolina offensive line before the Tar Heels made adjustments. Kinlaw had a sack, a fumble recovery, a quarterback hurry and a blocked kick, demonstrating the type of force he can be on the defensive line.
The secondary struggled in the second half, missing several tackles and giving up some big pass plays late in the second, including two fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
But safeties Jamyest Williams and R.J. Roderick both played well, collecting nine tackles each. Corner Jaycee Horn also had a sack and two forced fumbles.
Charlton continues to show why he’s one of the best punters in the country. Though he shanked one, he averaged 43.2 yards on five punts, including a long one of 59 yards. He also pinned two kicks inside the 20.
The Gamecocks played poorly, blew a game they should have won and left fans frustrated and discouraged.
But they made no excuses for the poor play and said all the right things after the game.
Bentley, who is expected to have a big senior season, took full blame for the loss after throwing two fourth-quarter interceptions and missing a wide open Shi Smith in the end zone with the game on the line.
“I was given every opportunity to go win the game and I didn’t do it. It starts with me,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one to struggle. Bentley was under duress all day thanks to breakdowns by the offensive line and the Gamecocks were penalized nine times for 75 yards, most of them by the offensive line. After the game, everyone shared the blame.
“I ain’t no finger pointer. We all have to do our part,” Edwards said. “I jumped off sides on third down, I dropped a pass over the middle when Jake got away from the pressure. It’s on all of us. He made some key turnovers at key parts of the game, but we all have to pick each other up and keep playing the game.”
Most importantly, the Gamecocks were determined to get back to work, identify and correct their mistakes and improve.
“We all know we still have plenty of games to play,” Edwards said. “We still have a long season ahead of us. We just have to go back to the drawing board and just keep working.”
“I know we are better than that. That’s not the team we are,” Markway said. “We are going to improve this week and come out better next week.”