Dowdle

South Carolina running back Rico Dowdle scored but was mostly squashed by Missouri on Saturday. L.G. Patterson/AP

COLUMBIA — The elbow’s fine.

If South Carolina’s offense can be fine before a must-win game against Kentucky Saturday is one of many looming questions.

“Ryan feels very strong that his elbow’s fine, we’ve asked him multiple times about that,” USC coach Will Muschamp said. “(He was) maybe a little off, and they played well. We didn’t create a lot of separation at the top of some routes, we didn’t protect as well as we needed to protect, so I think it was a combination of a lot of things.”

The biggest wonder coming out of Saturday’s 34-14 dreck of a loss at Missouri was what was wrong with quarterback Ryan Hilinski. Whispers began to be heard late Friday that he had missed a day of practice with a sore elbow, and every Gamecock guru from Calhoun Falls to Red Hill had Hilinski battling everything from taking a helmet to the funny bone to his arm rotting off.

The facts:

• Hilinski had an MRI last Wednesday and there is no structural damage.

• He practiced Sunday night and “moved around well,” albeit with a sore chest and ankle after Missouri’s defense teed off on him.

• He threw 57 times against Alabama as a true freshman, which would naturally cause soreness or some light tendonitis, as announcer (and former quarterback) Todd Ellis said in his pregame report.

• People close to Hilinski are very comfortable with how Muschamp and the medical staff have handled it.

All that said, Hilinski was clearly not himself on Saturday. As Muschamp said, a little elbow soreness, Missouri’s defense and USC’s receivers not getting open all played into it.

OK.

But what happens if he’s sore this weekend, Kentucky’s defense is channeling Missouri and USC’s receivers still can’t get open?

These are the questions that, if not answered satisfactorily Saturday, make the other question much more real.

That’s the one on whether or not Muschamp will be coaching at USC next year.

It should have been clear early in the game that the passing game wasn’t working, and the Gamecocks needed to run. Muschamp said the game plan was to commit to the run, and while they often ran on first down in the first half, they abandoned it after that.

That was all Missouri’s defense needed. Since the Tigers were stacking the line anyway, they began running at Hilinski and counting on his inexperience to show.

“I think we rattled him early,” linebacker Nick Bolton told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We got in his face early. We made him think. We kept him from knowing what we were going to do pre-snap.”

Muschamp said that USC needs to stick to the run more, to “call it and haul it,” and he also said that there may be more of a presence for Dakereon Joyner at quarterback. Joyner, the former Fort Dorchester High star, handled the Gamecocks’ 13-play final drive when Hilinski was knocked down for the final time.

That doesn’t come with an entirely new playbook to fit the mobile Joyner, but does come with some tweaks. The surprise element Joyner can bring isn’t being used enough, or effectively.

“I thought he did some nice things, kept some plays alive for us,” Muschamp said. “Obviously, we’ve altered some things that Ryan felt more comfortable than Jake (Bentley), and we’ll alter some things where Dakereon feels more comfortable than Ryan or Jake.”

Hilinski's elbow is fine and he will start Saturday. Joyner will be available to play whatever role he is assigned.

USC's offense needs to get better in a hurry. 

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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