COLUMBIA — Is everything OK now?
But all South Carolina could have asked for after a 1-3 start was a chance to reclaim its season, and that chance has been grabbed tighter than the pizza guy pedaling past Weight Watchers.
USC didn’t become a great team with its 24-7 win on Saturday. It didn’t leave all of its problems behind.
Yet the Gamecocks knew they couldn’t have a good season with a sixth straight loss to Kentucky. The season has sailed back into the open sea with plenty of direction beckoning — on both sides.
But the Gamecocks now know how to steer.
Seven takeaways from a must-have win:
USC wanted to run the ball last week and gave up on it. The Gamecocks wanted to run the ball this week, so they ran the ball this week.
Tavien Feaster with 107 yards and two sixes on 15 carries and Rico Dowdle with 102 yards and a six on 15 carries made so much balanced sense that Will Muschamp really had to wear those spectacles throughout the game. He and offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon’s professorial approach to the offense fit so well that McClendon should have worn a graduation robe and mortarboard.
“It was frustrating as a running back not being able to get it started,” Feaster said. “This week we just kind of went out there and imposed our will.”
It’s a heavy weapon the Gamecocks are toting and while Kentucky won’t be the best team they see, that same Kentucky hasn’t allowed them running room the last five years. Obviously, the question of Dowdle’s health looms (Muschamp said Sunday he should be able to practice by Wednesday) but with those two RBs, USC has a way to control the game and keep the heat off quarterback Ryan Hilinski.
There is still a problem with the Gamecocks’ offensive identity. If they want to be a running team, from game to game or season to season, there’s no problem with that. Just stick with it.
Don’t, for instance, come out with no back after getting off the field without allowing points when you just gave the opponent the ball after a bouncing punt hit your player. Especially while leading 7-0.
Gamecocks had success running the ball.— David Cloninger (@DCPandC) September 29, 2019
They come out with no running back in the backfield. Pass to Edwards for no gain, high and incomplete to Markway. They put in Dowdle, and screen to Dawkins, who's dropped short of the sticks.
That was classic SEC football, the kind Muschamp grew up on and played in. Run the ball and stop the run and it’s almost always going to go your way.
The Wildcats rushed for 115 yards but 70 were on two plays late in the fourth quarter (which did ruin the first shutout since 2008, but what, you wanted a perfect night?) Otherwise, USC was keyed on running backs A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke (let’s all just repeat the best name in college football a few times, shall we?) and didn’t let them get a sniff of clean air.
“Obviously, they’ve got some issues offensively,” Muschamp said, and wasn’t being insulting. He knew quarterback Sawyer Smith was banged up and Kentucky would try to run, because Kentucky couldn’t pass and had won five straight against USC with the run.
Not this time. The Gamecocks submerged the Wildcats’ line and began using Smith as a backstop. D.J. Wonnum sacked him three times and Ernest Jones intercepted him in the first quarter.
The acid test? When receiver Lynn Bowden checked in to run the “Wildcat” package that the Gamecocks have treated like a bag of pit vipers the past five years. They were on Bowden like marshmallow on Walter Peck.
3. Joe the Toe
Joseph Charlton punted nine times for an average of 51.2 yards. The country’s No. 2 punter behind Kentucky’s Max Duffy coming in, Charlton topped Duffy’s nine punts for 51.1 yards Saturday.
Of course most don’t really want to see Charlton out there as much, but if he’s constantly flipping the field, he’s doing what he needs to do. That’s a guy that can kick for a lot of NFL dollars.
Hilinski played OK. He didn’t do anything bad and he didn’t really have to do anything great since the rushing game was working so well.
Yet the throws that carved Alabama like Wolverine in Berserker mode aren’t being attempted a lot. He’s keeping it safe, throwing to his receivers and letting them make their moves.
The protection was not good Saturday. That played into it, since every time Hilinski tried to step up in the pocket and throw deep, he got nailed. It’s also natural that with depending so much on the run, Hilinski didn’t have much of a chance to get into rhythm.
It’s something to keep an eye on. With the Gamecocks’ backup QB position suddenly so trembly, they can’t afford a shaky starter.
5. Thank you, Simone
I report Dylan Wonnum is out, and it’s just like when I reported Dakereon Joyner was out.
“He’s gone! Muschamp’s lost the team! They’re transferring!”
HOT RUMOR! Wonnum was “challenged by Jaylen Nichols in practice and quit when he got beat.” (No, he nearly broke his ankle at Missouri and is out 3-4 weeks).
HOT RUMOR! Joyner “is faking an injury so he can redshirt.” (No, he already redshirted, so faking an injury to preserve this year wouldn’t do any good. His hamstring is ailing and he hopes to be back for Georgia).
A team’s playing bad, it doesn’t necessarily mean every absence is more signs of trouble. Muschamp could be much, much, much better at discussing injuries, but folks, sometimes things are exactly what we ol’ “fake newsers” say it is.
6. The road ahead
Again, nobody’s preaching that everything’s fixed and the Gamecocks will go on to have a great season. Realistically, they’ll be 2-4 after Georgia and need to win four of their final six to go to a bowl game.
Beating Kentucky made that very possible, perhaps even probable. Florida is not a great team. Neither is Texas A&M. Honestly, I think Appalachian State will give USC more of a challenge in that Georgia-to-Clemson stretch than anyone else.
The Gamecocks still have to win but that doesn’t seem as impossible as it once did.
7. The Good Life
Confession time — sportswriters, just like anybody else, want to relax. When a bye week comes along, we want to enjoy it like the team does.
So USC beating Kentucky spares all of us from a lot of what would have happened with a loss.
No talk of buyouts or coaching searches or exactly how bad the situation will get. Just they won, they have a chance to achieve what was probably always going to be the best finish for this team (6-6 and a bowl game) and a good three weeks until having to re-dive into it.
Talk to you then.