SAPAKOFF COLUMN: South Carolina's best upgrade was solid showing against East Carolina
COLUMBIA — The best thing about South Carolina's new scoreboard? The score and the bored.
The most enjoyable part of the school's dazzling new tailgate world was post-game digestion of a 48-10 romp over East Carolina. The No. 9 Gamecocks' performance was so dominant Saturday, most of the students at Williams-Brice Stadium departed to party before the third quarter was half over.
With pomp and a garnet and black jump castle, the school officially unveiled lots of goodies in and around the stadium: a $30.5 million
beautifully landscaped tailgate world — 3,000 parking spaces on the former Farmer's Market grounds on Bluff Road — and the $3.6 million scoreboard roughly the size of Blythewood.
The most important South Carolina athletic department innovation is a highly ranked football team capable of cruising to a 2-0 start with its suspect backup quarterback throwing for 330 yards and three touchdowns. The Gamecocks proved they deserve top 10 status.
“Definitely the sign of a mature team,” running back Marcus Lattimore said.
Making Clemson proud
Most previous South Carolina teams would have “struggled mightily,” to borrow a favorite Steve Spurrier phrase. Won ugly, at best.
These Gamecocks forced five turnovers. Quarterback Dylan Thompson did his best Tony Romo act, very necessary as East Carolina's 3-4 defense stacked up against Lattimore and held the Heisman Trophy candidate to 40 yards rushing.
“We had 50 plays at halftime,” Spurrier quipped. “That Clemson coach would be proud of us, wouldn't he?”
Actually, 47 plays (74 total) but the offense moved at a faster pace than usual.
Eleven different Gamecocks caught passes. DeAngelo Smith scored his first touchdown. Shaq Roland and K.J. Brent had their first career catches.
The delightfully deflecting Thompson said he tries to get the ball into the hands of other players because, “I'm the worst athlete on the team.”
Thompson's stellar first start one week after a shaky relief appearance at Vanderbilt gives fans and coaches more confidence going into the meaty stretch of the schedule. After playing host to lightweight Alabama-Birmingham next week, the Gamecocks play host to Missouri in the first of seven consecutive Southeastern Conference games.
A tough economy partly explains why South Carolina didn't have a sellout for its home opener. History says business numbers will bounce back, but technology is another issue: HDTV advances make watching football games at home better than the stadium experience for many fans.
So South Carolina competes with its new Gamecock Village, scarlet oaks, tent zones and grill connections.
All the converted Farmer's Market stuff makes a previously unremarkable tailgate scene something special. The school planted 3,200 shrubs, 762 trees, 1,500 flower plants and 1,600 low-level plants across 53 acres.
Choreographed pageantry matched with good football execution works best. East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill said he voted the Gamecocks eighth in last week's poll of head coaches but that he plans to change that to sixth or seventh this week.
“They're a defense that can range all over the field,” McNeill said. “Opportunistic is how I would define their defense as a whole.”
All the new botany projects and grilling options are welcome. The third-largest SEC scoreboard, too.
It shines brightest with replays of Gamecock touchdowns and takeaways.
Winning, the late sports marketing pontiff Bill Veeck said, is the most successful promotion.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at email@example.com or Twitter @sapakoff.