COLUMBIA — This space could be used for a lot of motivational sayings, like how there’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded beast pushed into a corner. It could be quoting George C. Scott in his iconic role of Gen. George S. Patton, only it would be Will Muschamp with that combat helmet on grunting through gritted teeth, “All my life I’ve wanted to lead a lot of men in a desperate battle.”
At 1-3 and needing to beat Kentucky on Saturday to avoid going into an Oct. 19 game against Florida 1-5 (a game at No. 3 Georgia and a 1-4 record precedes the Gators), South Carolina is in a corner. The Gamecocks are a bunch of desperate men.
But they have shown no signs of being a beast, wounded or otherwise, meekly tiptoeing through losses to North Carolina and Missouri. And Muschamp sure hasn’t whipped his troops into the finely tuned, disciplined Third Army.
There is still time for a turnaround. There is still time for Muschamp to back up the words of athletics director Ray Tanner, who said Wednesday he believes in the head coach as much as he ever did.
That belief may change with another loss and no hope to get to a bowl game. If ever there was a time for Muschamp to prove he can rally his team to get a must-win game, it’s now.
“Our guys are excited about it, and you know what? Our fans will be great. They'll be supportive,” Muschamp said. “I don't need to tell 'em anything. I know they'll be excited to see them play. And we really, really appreciate their support.”
What positive support remains, what chance for more packed houses exists, disappears with another defeat.
Four keys to a Gamecock victory against Kentucky:
Stick with the game plan
Whatever that may be. Run it 50 times, fine. Have Ryan Hilinski throw it 50 times, fine. Call 10 trick plays on special teams, fine.
Just whatever Muschamp and play-caller Bryan McClendon come up with in order to move the football, stick with it.
Muschamp said the game plan was to run the football last week, yet the Gamecocks didn’t, even when a few first-down runs worked and Hilinski couldn’t throw with any consistency. It too quickly regressed into the too-often indictment of Muschamp’s teams — an offensive hole deeper and darker than the Mariana Trench.
With the way Kentucky has been able to slice through USC’s defense the past five years, and the struggles USC’s defense has had in its first four games this year, the Gamecocks have to score points. Many of them.
Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is a solid assistant coach.
Against South Carolina, he is Bill Walsh, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer combined.
Kentucky has won the past five games against USC and has had the better team in two of them. Gran’s offense has found ways to flummox the Gamecocks, most often with a running quarterback and/or the “Wildcat” formation.
Much of it has been USC’s inability to tackle. Much of it has been Gran’s simple approach — if it’s working, keep doing it, even if the player responsible (say, JoJo Kemp) literally has to be picked up off the ground because he’s too tired from running over the Gamecocks.
This year, Gran lost his best QB, the dual-threat “Touchdown” Terry Wilson, to injury and Wilson’s top backup, pocket passer Sawyer Smith, was banged up last week and could be limited Saturday. The Wildcats also don’t have running back Benny Snell anymore, but they do have Asim Rose (297 yards) and the best name in college football, Kavosiey Smoke (who’s also a great runner, with 276 yards).
Kentucky’s beaten up and has not looked great offensively. But it has yet to play USC, the opponent that pays for the Gran family’s Christmas every single year.
The Gamecocks can’t tackle. They can’t do it fundamentally or consistently.
Muschamp’s defensive guru skills haven’t translated the past two years. It’s ridiculous to say that one player meant so much to a defense — but just look at how bad the defense has been since linebacker Skai Moore left after Muschamp’s second year.
Moore covered so many weaknesses in gap coverage and run fits. He could force turnovers more often than costume changes at a Beyonce concert. He made everyone around him better.
And since he left, USC has gotten some (presumably great) talent at many other spots, yet the defense as a whole is lacking.
An entire scheme isn’t going to be tweaked in the week since Missouri. But learning to tackle? That could have been.
If USC actually got some results from something, Muschamp says, that they constantly work on.
College football is an emotional game, but USC hasn’t displayed much of it so far this season. Losses aren’t blamed on being emotionally flat, but it seems as if the Gamecocks, after six straight losses to Power-5 opponents, are suffering from Billsitis.
Billsitis is defined by Webster’s as “Losing all hope the first time something goes wrong.” It was added to the lexicon on Jan. 30, 1994, when Thurman Thomas fumbled 45 seconds into the third quarter of Super Bowl XXVIII.
The Buffalo Bills went on to lose their fourth straight Super Bowl, 30-13. At the time of that fumble, they were leading Dallas, 13-6. That ball hit the deck and it was, “Here we go again.”
Not to link it to Thomas (although he was on that Oklahoma State team that thumped USC in the 1984 Gator Bowl, ending what was the best season in school history at 10-2), but the mentality seems to be the same. The Gamecocks make a mistake these days and it’s, “Ohhhh, boy.”
Mistakes will happen. If the Gamecocks are up a couple of touchdowns when they do, no big deal.
Down a couple of touchdowns? The next two weeks, when USC could be enjoying a break from the grind, are going to be crummier than the Star Wars prequels.
South Carolina 31, Kentucky 30