COLUMBIA — There were moments when it all looked exactly like it should.
The defender fell for the fake, the receiver slipped his man and as Jake Bentley arched another guided missile into the crisp autumn air, Bryan McClendon just knew. All the plans, all the hours he spent drilling his players on those plans, were about to pay off in a touchdown.
McClendon’s rookie season as South Carolina’s play-caller produced over 425 yards per game, the most the Gamecocks have had since 2014, and just over 30 points per game. The trust Will Muschamp had in McClendon was rewarded with a dynamic offense in the last half of the regular season.
Then he learned what every coach does. You’re only as good as your last game.
So all those good moments? Forget ’em. A bad game is forever just around the corner.
“We got our tails kicked. That’s ultimately what happened,” McClendon said of the final game of 2018. “We lined up and then they beat us. There was some stuff I felt like we left out there for sure.
“There was no glaring thing that happened other than we were just getting beat. So when you get beat and you turn the ball over, you don’t do well on offense.”
The Gamecocks averaged 450 yards and nearly 36 points per game in Games 5-11, even when starting that streak with a backup quarterback. Then came a turnover-marred second half against Akron followed by a 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl.
When USC kicks off the 2019 season on Aug. 31 (vs. North Carolina) in Charlotte, it will restart the clock that stalled when the Belk Bowl ended last December. The Gamecocks didn’t score in the final 91:32 of the 2018 season.
Don’t think that hasn’t lurked in McClendon’s mind all offseason.
“It’s hard not to. The bottom line is we’re not where we need to be offensively. We weren’t last year,” he said. “We made improvements in a lot of areas, but we still left a lot out there and some of those games where we scored 30, we could have scored 60.”
Moments where it all seamlessly blended couldn’t be gloried, not that McClendon would anyway. McClendon began his USC play-calling duties with three quarters of misery in the Outback Bowl, only to see everything click with 23 points in the final 18 minutes.
That led to permanent coordinator and play-calling duties, which began roughly last year before again lining up the cogs and finding the oil can. There were several weeks of success and then a dreadful end.
There’s a lot to like coming into this season. McClendon has Bentley starting his senior year at quarterback, senior receiver Bryan Edwards, junior star receiver Shi Smith and he bolstered his running game with Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster. There are issues to correct before Aug. 31 — a sudden loss of depth at tight end, and the offensive line is re-shuffling — but there’s confidence.
How much depends on how much McClendon feels the veteran unit can handle. He deliberately didn’t install much of his playbook last season until he found out what the players could grasp. It’s fully in now, but it’s still a challenge week to week on what to concentrate on.
“I think you always have to have some form of that. Bottom line is you have to do what your team is good at doing,” McClendon said. “Between what’s not enough and what’s too much, you want to have enough in where guys are confident and know what to do and there’s no question about anything, but you don’t want to be too simple to where everybody knows what you’re doing. Then you don’t want to have too much in to where now there’s confusion about everything, so you’re not really good at anything.”
The Gamecocks are expected to be good at throwing the ball.
“Take care of the ball, explosive plays, being able to push the ball down the field and attack the defense,” Bentley described as his goals.
They’re expected to be better at running the ball.
“The way those guys played tough, physical, when I was watching the film, I definitely loved what I saw, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it,” Feaster said.
McClendon has his entire playbook in and will be able to see what works the best and what needs more work on Aug. 31. He did the same last year.
“I think you had to hold back some. Reason being, you never really see a first-year system go in there and kind of get to rolling,” he said. “What I wanted to do was implement a bunch of good things that we thought could help the guys and help put those guys in position to be successful.”
Moments are coming. Good or bad, McClendon will have a short memory.