COLUMBIA - What the heck happened?
That was the question being asked on sports-talk radio around the capital city on Friday, in the aftermath of South Carolina's season-opening blowout loss at the hands of Texas A&M. While few believed the 10-point Las Vegas spread to be indicative of the outcome, not even the most diehard Aggie supporter could have dreamed the game would turn out like it did - a 52-28 romp by visiting team, with unsung quarterback Kenny Hill breaking Johnny Manziel's single-game passing record in his first career start.
That was a stunner, all right, and South Carolina's problems mounting a pass rush were very real, and probably made Gamecock fans shudder a bit with East Carolina and Georgia looming on the schedule. While not all is lost - if you have to lose in college football, lose early, right? - the tasks of contending for the SEC East crown and recording a fourth consecutive 11-win season suddenly appear that much more arduous.
So what the heck did happen? For the Gamecocks, it was an imperfect storm of several factors, such as:
-- Texas A&M was too lightly regarded. "It caught us off-guard the way they came out playing against us," cornerback Brison Williams said after the game, likely speaking for the entire South Carolina locker room. In his post-game comments, Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier referred a few times to preseason projections, leading listeners to believe that his players had become a touch too enamored with their press clippings.
And on the other side, the Aggies chafed at the idea that they were a lesser team without Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. "It comes back to all the talk, all the hype, all the media," linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. "We try not to pay attention to it, but obviously we hear about it. We came in with a mindset (of), no one really expects us to win, very little expectations. Over time that kind of ate away at us, and I think it just built up and built up, and I think we just wanted to let it all hang out and show the country what we were made of."
They certainly did that. Are the Aggies really that good? It could be a while before we find out for certain - their next six games are against Lamar, Rice, SMU, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, at least opening the possibility that Texas A&M could take an unbeaten record into Tuscaloosa on Oct. 18.
-- Kevin Sumlin can flat-out coach. In the days leading up to the game, USC secondary coach Grady Brown warned that the Texas A&M coach has always run a high-powered passing game, regardless of who he had in the skill positions. This is a guy who shattered records with Case Keenum at Houston before he coached Manziel, so clearly Sumlin has a system that works - and he showed it once again, and vividly so, in Columbia.
Hill, a sophomore with 22 college pass attempts to his name entering Thursday, was the star. But Sumlin's masterful offensive game plan laid the groundwork for it all. Texas A&M's short-passing scheme helped Hill mask his inexperience and gain early confidence by allowing him to get rid of the ball quickly. While he occasionally went over the middle, he excelled at finding open receivers in the flat, and South Carolina couldn't tackle well enough to force the Aggies to change course. Sometimes it was like a video game, with Hill working one side and then the other, over and over, with plays that were nearly identical.
Opposing defenses will adapt -- they now have film on Hill, who won't be able to dink everyone to death like he did the Gamecocks on Thursday night. But clearly, the loss of Manziel wasn't the backbreaker everyone assumed it was.
"I think what we did tonight was showed that really, we're not a one-trick pony," Sumlin said. "We aren't anywhere near where we want to be - (but) we're not going anywhere, anytime soon."
-- Mike Davis clearly wasn't 100 percent. The Gamecocks' top running back didn't start, Spurrier said, because he had missed time in preseason camp with bruised ribs. He left the game in the third quarter with the same issue, after gaining 15 yards on six carries. Brandon Wilds started for South Carolina and rushed nine times for 45 yards, but the longest Gamecocks carry of the night was just 14 yards.
There are all kinds of issues here. The lack of an effective running game forced South Carolina to rely solely on quarterback Dylan Thompson, who threw four touchdowns but could only do so much on his own. It led to quick offensive possessions that further taxed the defense and allowed Hill and the Aggies to get right back on the field. And it left in question Davis' heath going forward, even though he has a few extra days to heal before his next game.
As we saw last season, South Carolina is much more effective as a two-dimensional offense, with an effective running game that opens things up for the quarterback. That didn't happen Thursday. As good as Wilds and Shon Carson can be, Davis is the game-breaker - and if he's hampered, so are the Gamecocks.
-- Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton were pretty good, too. Clowney may have received most of the attention (and the double-teams) a season ago, but he was one part of a stellar defensive line that's been rebuilt with the loss of three starters from 2013. Quarles, often overshadowed by his teammate, had 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season, and the Gamecocks certainly could have used some of that defensive pressure against Texas A&M.
In total, Clowney, Quarles and Sutton accounted for 15.5 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and replacing them is hardly just a matter of putting a new body in their old positions. As promising as some of the new Gamecock starters along the defensive line may be, Hill on Thursday night had them on a string. When South Carolina blitzed, he got rid of the ball quickly. Otherwise, he had time to find the open receiver. In total, the Gamecocks managed one sack and three tackles for loss. Clearly, they're missing more than just Clowney.
So yes, it was bad. Really bad. At the same time, there were some things to be hopeful about. Thompson was solid for much of the night, even if he did miss too high or hold onto the ball too long on occasion. As always, the Ball Coach is adept at finding the big play. Nick Jones shows all kinds of promise as a go-to receiver. And South Carolina players won't be overestimating themselves -- or underestimating any opponents -- again anytime soon.
As we've seen time and time again, early-season losses can be overcome more than those which occur later in the season, although the margin for error narrows considerably from here on. If the Gamecocks can regroup in time to beat Georgia in two weeks, Atlanta still looms as a possibility - but they have to find a pass rush, a running game, and probably a little humility first.
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