COLUMBIA — It was OK to be excited, despite the opponent and the situation.
Let’s face it, many of the saviors of South Carolina football have turned out to be not that. Especially at quarterback, where the warts have often come in at 10-to-1 favorites over the dimples.
So when Ryan Hilinski stepped in Saturday in relief of the injured Jake Bentley, there was a lot, a whole lot, to like. My, he looked good, only missing six of 30 throws for nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns, also putting his head down and plowing over a defender at the goal line for another score.
But it was Charleston Southern, a team the Gamecocks should have dominated (and did, 72-10). In that sense, it was a perfect way for Hilinski to debut, letting him play significant minutes against an opponent where he could play perfectly awful and still win.
He didn’t. He played very well. And it wasn’t just numbers, it was the chemistry, the way the Gamecocks seemed to respond to him right away.
“Once I heard he was going to start this week, I think I was very excited. Because I know what he can do, and the rest of the world, at the time, didn’t know what he could do,” said Dakereon Joyner, who lost the backup job to Hilinski in the preseason but is one of his biggest supporters. “Now y’all know.”
It was Hilinski exhorting his teammates as they gathered in the tunnel, Hilinski who led them out to the strains of “2001.” It was he who on his first drive had the student section chanting his name, and who stared down the adoring south end zone after his first rushing touchdown, as if promising, “That’s just the start.”
He did throw an interception, a play where he was blitzed, panicked and tossed it right to the safety, but better to do it in a 62-point win than, say, next week, when No. 2 Alabama visits. Hilinski completed his first 12 passes, the first eight to eight different receivers, and did what Bentley couldn’t do against North Carolina last week — get the ball to the elite Bryan Edwards, who had two touchdowns among his five catches.
“Ryan’s always been real calm, real cool. He’s never been afraid,” Edwards said. “I knew he wasn’t going to be rattled or nothing like that.”
Next week will tell a lot, but also not be any kind of definition (USC will be a massive underdog and a loss is expected). The next two games, at Missouri and hosting Kentucky, will tell a lot more about the new guy.
Yet Hilinski has many feeling a lot better about the Gamecocks’ chances.