For revamped Gamecocks defense, a victory and a statement all in one (copy)

South Carolina kicks off its season with a 3:30 p.m. game Saturday against North Carolina in Charlotte. File/Chuck Burton/AP

COLUMBIA — They can’t erase the last game they played, which was also the last time they played in Charlotte. Marty and Doc could show up in the “Back to the Future” DeLorean and it still wouldn’t affect what happened 245 days ago.

South Carolina was humiliated 28-0 in the Belk Bowl. They win that game, it’s an eight-victory season after numerous injuries and a heck of a job by coach Will Muschamp. But they didn’t, and they couldn’t even score a point, meaning when Saturday’s game against North Carolina kicks off, a scoreless-stretch timer that already reads 91:32 will re-start. 

This stands to be a tough season, and as such, will have a direct bearing on how rosy Muschamp’s reclamation project will look going into 2020. The Gamecocks must, absolutely must, win the games they’re supposed to win in 2019.

They’re a double-digit favorite against the Tar Heels.

Here are four keys to a USC win:

Stop the run

The Tar Heels will turn to their JAM Squad (running backs Javonte Williams, Antonio Williams and Michael Carter) as the main source of their offense after the trio combined for over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. The Gamecocks were horrendous against the run last season, not helped by massive injuries across the defensive front.

This year’s line is healthy and deep, but everybody has to show they can have the same result against what’s expected to be UNC backs hammering into them time after time. Do that, it forces the onus on rookie quarterback Sam Howell, and gives the Gamecocks’ fabulous secondary a real chance to shine.

Sammy Football?

Muschamp often tells the story of the second game of his 2012 season at Florida. Texas A&M was unveiling its new quarterback, some kid named Manziel, and Muschamp, who had known about him during his time at Texas, warned his defense not to take him lightly.

The Gators pooh-poohed Muschamp and Manziel’s highlight tape. It was high school, they scoffed.

Florida trailed 17-10 at halftime. Manziel was nearly untouchable. Muschamp reminded his kids of what he told them, the Gators regrouped and shut out A&M in the second half to win 20-17, but the lesson had been learned.

Howell’s a true freshman, who Muschamp also recruited, and USC has been watching his high-school film. Odds are UNC will play it safe, not give him too much at him too soon and stick to the run.

But he’ll throw sometime, leaving it to Gamecock pass-rusher D.J. Wonnum and mammoth tackle Javon Kinlaw to start causing nightmares.

QB1

This is Jake Bentley’s team, and really his program. He has one last go-round to remove the nagging question that has dogged him the past two years.

He has all the talent, wisdom and particulars to be an elite quarterback. When is he going to consistently show it?

Bentley has had a fantastic preseason. He’s mastered coordinator Bryan McClendon’s up-tempo offense and has focused on taking care of the ball.

That last has to be better this year. Bentley tossed 14 interceptions in 2018, including six in his last five games.

The better team

The Gamecocks are more talented and more experienced. First games, like bowl games, are always tricky but USC should have the horses to overcome any surprises.

USC can’t let the Tar Heels gain momentum. The Gamecocks know more than any team how a quick-strike score can go a long way.

It was only 26 games ago that N.C. State kicked off to USC in Charlotte, and Deebo Samuel returned it for a touchdown. The Gamecocks won by one touchdown and went on to win nine games.

Prediction

South Carolina 28, North Carolina 17

Muse still in limbo

William & Mary transfer tight end Nick Muse was still waiting on word of his eligibility from the NCAA as the Gamecocks' bus left Columbia Friday, sources close to the team confirmed. He is not cleared so he couldn't travel with the team. 

Word still could come down before kickoff tomorrow that he is cleared, but if so, he'll have to get to Charlotte on his own. 

Muse, the younger brother of Clemson safety Tanner Muse, transferred because his major wasn't offered at William & Mary. He was hoping to gain immediate eligibility due to that. 

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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