COLUMBIA - These Gamecocks aren't exactly used to this.
And why would they be? These are players who either arrived at South Carolina in the midst of the best three-year stretch in school history, or played a direct role in compiling it. There's nobody on the USC roster who's ever endured a home defeat along the lines of last week's 52-28 loss to Texas A&M in the season opener. In recent seasons, it's the Gamecocks who've been delivering the blowouts at Williams-Brice Stadium.
In fact, most of the current crop of USC players were in grammar school the last time the Gamecocks were dismantled at home in such a fashion - that being 2003, and the infamous 62-17 loss to Clemson in the final game of Lou Holtz's penultimate season in Columbia. There have been big losses since, to be certain, and some of the current South Carolina players have experienced them, like the 44-11 drubbing by Florida in the Swamp two seasons ago. But compared to the way things used to be, such results are now exceedingly rare. And they're virtually unheard of in Columbia.
All of which brings us to the most important part of last week's loss - the response. As bad as the opener was, it has to hearten Gamecock fans just a little that South Carolina's coaches and players seem able to drill down to exactly what went wrong. Back when USC got hammered in the Bad Old Days, the reason was always fairly simple - the other team had better players. That's not the case now. Sure, it hurts to lose guys like Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney, who along with Marcus Lattimore stand as cornerstones of the past three years. Are there spots where the Gamecocks might be not quite as good, or quite as deep, as SEC opponents? Certainly. But talent is hardly the blanket explanation it used to be.
That 24-point loss to the Aggies was rooted in execution, or a lack thereof, something painfully obvious to anyone who watched it. On the surface, everything seemed fixable, at least to a degree. The Gamecocks know what they did wrong - not finishing tackles, not getting pressure on the quarterback, and not mounting an effective running game, foremost among them - and set out this week to correct them. Now, whether they can turn it around fast enough to slow East Carolina may be another matter. But remember, these are players who don't know 0-21, or 63-17, or any of the other totals emblematic of USC football before Steve Spurrier. They know only a program that's won 11 games three years running, and which they joined with the goal of playing for an SEC title.
OK, so that objective may seem a tad more remote than it did last week. But as someone who covered the Bad Old Days, and remembers how lost and outmatched Gamecock players and coaches were in the wake of some of those losses, it feels very different to hear a response of - we know what we did wrong, and we're going to correct it. "We think we have the players to fix it," Spurrier said Tuesday. That's not something heard very often following blowout losses back in the days of yore.
Clearly, there are some folks quaking in their boots at the idea of East Carolina - another team running the kind of up-tempo, spread offense that ate up the Gamecocks last week, and with a more accomplished quarterback to boot - coming to Columbia directly on the heels of Texas A&M. But given the similarities in the two opponents' schemes, this might be an ideal week to play the Pirates - the Gamecocks know what they'll face, because they've just seen it. ECU's offensive line also weighs an average of 15 pounds less per man than Texas A&M's did, and the Pirates employ a three-man defensive front that South Carolina hopes to exploit for more yards on the ground.
Another performance like last Thursday's would be truly shocking given how far this program has come. Is this Gamecock team as good as the ones Shaw and Clowney led to 11 victories over each of the past three years? Maybe not, but the personal standards within that locker room remain. These are still proud players who aren't accustomed to losing much at all, even less so in the manner they did in the season opener. "We're going to get right this week," defensive end Gerald Dixon said. Given what we've seen the past three seasons, the natural inclination is to believe him.
A few other items of note:
-- The rapid progression of running back Mike Davis from his rib injury continues, to the point where Spurrier sounded Wednesday as if the junior would be ready for the East Carolina game. "He should be pretty close to full seed Saturday night," the Ball Coach said on the weekly SEC coaches teleconference.
Davis took a helmet to the ribs in the Gamecocks' final preseason scrimmage, and missed some practice time the following week with a rib bruise. He didn't start the Texas A&M game, and then left in the third quarter after aggravating the injury. Sunday, Spurrier said Davis was doubtful for the ECU game. Tuesday, he was likely. Now, "he feels pretty good, I guess, and should be ready to go," Spurrier said.
Davis clearly wasn't 100 percent in the opener, managing just 15 yards on six carries before pulling himself out of the game. No other Gamecock runner possesses his game-breaking ability, making Davis key to a South Carolina offense that was forced to rely solely on the pass after falling behind against Texas A&M. Brandon Wilds is expected to start, but if Davis is indeed healthy, he could be central to keeping the Pirates' up-tempo offense off the field - something the Gamecocks were unable to do last week.
-- Starting cornerback Brison Williams missed practice Wednesday with what's being termed a right arm bruise, though it's unclear how that might affect his status for Saturday night's game. The senior was USC's second-leading tackler against Texas A&M, with seven total stops. Williams is the lone veteran in a secondary that also starts three underclassmen. His backup is true freshman Chris Lammons, who recorded one tackle against the Aggies.
-- USC's offensive line is being tweaked in the wake of the Texas A&M game. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said Wednesday that junior Will Sport is now penciled as the starter at right guard over sophomore Cody Waldrop, and that redshirt freshman Alan Knott has been running with the first team over sophomore Clayton Stadnik.
"I've been starting O-line all week, so that's the plan right now," said Knott who missed most of preseason camp with a knee injury, and worked on snapping the ball during his recovery. "Looking forward to it."
-- South Carolina's 2015 season opener against North Carolina will be played on a Thursday night, according to the Charlotte Sports Foundation. The matchup at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte will take place Sept. 3, and be "on primetime national television," the foundation said in a release, although no network or kickoff time have yet been announced.
The Gamecocks beat the Tar Heels 27-10 to open last season. South Carolina kicked off the 2011 campaign in Charlotte, where the Gamecocks beat East Carolina 56-37.
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