CHARLOTTE — Good Will’s gone.
The progress Will Muschamp gained in his first three years at South Carolina disappeared after a shocking, debilitating and frankly inexcusable 24-20 loss to North Carolina on Saturday. An 11-point favorite with the gumption to prove it was much better than its last game, a 28-0 Belk Bowl humiliation in the same Bank of America Stadium, the Gamecocks (0-1) couldn’t run offense or play defense as the Tar Heels raced past them.
“That’s not where I thought we were,” Muschamp said after the season-opening loss. “We had the game in the balance at 20-9, we didn’t take advantage of it.”
Muschamp inherited a wreck of a program and got it to a bowl game after a 2-4 start his first season. He overachieved with nine wins in Year 2. Last year, the Gamecocks went 7-6 but were plagued by injuries all season.
This is Muschamp’s best team. He has senior experience at several key positions, young and fierce talent in the secondary and a locker room that is full of Grade-A young men.
None of it mattered Saturday as a team that won two games last year and brought in a new head coach was better than USC. It gave Muschamp little choice but to pull two or three upsets against some of the Top-12 teams on his schedule in order to restore the hope that was lost Saturday.
What went right
The Gamecocks got the breaks that two years ago meant nine wins.
Javon Kinlaw blocked a field goal. For all of USC’s tackling problems, UNC’s first three possessions inside USC’s 10-yard line ended in field goals. Bryan Edwards made up for a measly one catch for 7 yards by returning a punt to the UNC 37 with 2:19 to go with USC trailing four points.
Two years ago, the Gamecocks found a way to take advantage of those breaks.
“I don’t think we really had a problem,” USC's Dakereon Joyner said. “We just got to get back to the drawing board and find ways to be better.”
Parker White made both of the field goals in his range (he missed a 53-yarder). Ernest Jones had 12 tackles.
What went wrong
The Gamecocks couldn’t consistently gain yards on the ground and were timid about trying to throw downfield. When they did, Jake Bentley was off target and threw two backbreaking interceptions.
“We can still have a successful season,” Bentley mumbled. “Really dig deep and find out what we can all do better, starting with me.”
Bentley threw over the head of Shi Smith after Edwards’ punt return, which almost certainly would have been a touchdown. He stared down Kyle Markway, whom he threw a touchdown to earlier, two plays later and UNC’s Myles Woolfolk read it the whole way for the second pick.
The Tar Heels trampled USC’s defense for 238 rushing yards. The Gamecocks could not tackle.
“That’s something that probably needed to happen,” Jones said. “You got to be humbled sometimes, you know?”
The Gamecocks led 20-17 in the fourth after giving up a 98-yard drive. Facing fourth-and-1 at their own 49 yard-line, Muschamp elected to punt.
“Pin them back on the 5-yard line,” he said of his thinking (which punter Joseph Charlton did). “Again, you play the percentages there. I felt comfortable about our defense, and obviously I was wrong. Got to go back and re-evaluate in those situations and leave our offense on the field.”
UNC drove 95 yards in seven plays for the go-ahead score.
The Gamecocks host Charleston Southern at noon next week. After Saturday’s fiasco, attendance might equal the fans’ hopes for a turnaround.