Scott Fowler: Gamecocks have plenty of time to right the ship, but this was a blundering start

Tribune Content Agency

South Carolina just wasn’t ready for prime time Saturday night.

The Gamecocks couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t protect the quarterback, couldn’t take enough advantage of their occasional flashes of brilliance and were beaten soundly, 31-17, by North Carolina in the season opener for both teams.

In this neutral-site Battle of the Carolinas, officially called the Duke’s Mayo Classic and played in Charlotte, the Gamecocks (0-1) won only one thing. They had a distinct, decibel-intensive advantage in terms of fan support, with at least 60% of the near-sellout crowd of 68,723 at Bank of America Stadium wearing garnet and black.

But that can only go so far when you only run the ball for a net 11 yards and you let your excellent quarterback, Spencer Rattler, get sacked nine times and harried even more.

The Gamecocks knew they could have problems with a lack of running game experience, and did they ever. The porous offensive line play, though — that was surprising. Although the Gamecocks had injuries all over the place by the time this game was halfway done, that’s still no excuse for nine sacks, especially against a UNC team that posted only 17 sacks the entire 2022 season.

“Tonight was nowhere near good enough,” USC coach Shane Beamer said.

No, it wasn’t.

Yes, the injuries quite literally hurt. “We were an absolute MASH unit out there tonight,” Beamer said.

But that’s part of every game, and the Gamecocks’ coaches and players didn’t adjust well enough on the fly.

The South Carolina defense had some moments, but it didn’t post a single sack. That 9-0 sack advantage for UNC feels like a misprint, but wasn’t.

It was the second-most sacks the Tar Heels had come up with since the statistic started being officially kept in the college game, trailing only a 10-sack UNC performance against Wake Forest in 2000.

A late sack of Rattler particularly incensed Beamer.

“It’s ridiculous to give up a sack (with UNC) rushing three people,” Beamer said.

Rattler played well and never seemed rattled. But wow, did he ever get pummeled.

“He gave us a chance,” Beamer said of Rattler. “Played his butt off. We can’t allow our quarterback to get hit like that.”

UNC star quarterback Drake Maye, on the other hand, wasn’t pressured much and for large swaths of the game directed the Tar Heels up and down the field. Maye marched UNC to three straight touchdowns that erased a second-quarter, 14-10 USC lead and put the Tar Heels up, 31-14, to start the fourth quarter.

That’s when South Carolina tried to mount a comeback. And it should be noted that there was a shot at this happening, because all wasn’t sour Saturday for the Gamecocks.

Wide receiver Xavier Legette (178 receiving yards) was fantastic and made some jump-ball catches that had to be seen to be believed.

Also, the Gamecocks opened the second half with a gorgeous onside kick, one both executed and recovered by placekicker Mitch Jeter — despite a slow-moving chain crew making him think about it for a long time. The chain crew literally delayed the game by not being on the field when the second half was ready to began.

“We’re out there ready to go,” Beamer said, “and let’s wait for the chain crew to finish eating their hot dogs to get out there so we can kick it.”

The onside kick worked anyway for USC. But not a lot else did, especially on offense in the second half.

Even after Jeter recovered that kick, South Carolina got no points out of it, losing the ball on an attempted fourth-down conversion. The Gamecocks offense went 4-for-14 on third-down conversions Saturday and 0-for-4 on fourth downs. It wasn’t a winning formula.

The game stayed somewhat within reach for USC late because the Gamecocks picked off Heisman Trophy contender Maye twice in the second half, allowing USC a chance at a fourth-quarter comeback. And it might have even worked had Rattler had time. Despite running for his life, Rattler still uncorked a number of gorgeous throws Saturday and threw for more yardage than Maye (353-269).

But the Gamecocks, despite spending most of the fourth quarter in UNC territory, managed only three points in that final period.

UNC coach Mack Brown said he noticed that the Gamecocks looked down in the dumps following that ninth and final sack, on South Carolina’s last failed drive.

“We got a sack and that pretty much means the game is over,” Brown said, “because you can see their body language just went to nothing.”

The Gamecocks still have plenty of time to fix things. This was only the first game of a long season. Last year’s USC team didn’t hit its stride until November, with those remarkable back-to-back wins over Top 10 teams (Tennessee and Clemson).

But this was a blundering start.