COLUMBIA — Let’s start with the obvious: if quarterback Greyson Lambert plays the rest of this season anything like he did Saturday night, Georgia is going to be awfully difficult to beat. The Bulldogs have a brutal SEC schedule which includes Alabama and Auburn, so their final record may not reflect it, but that might just be the best team South Carolina plays all season.
The Gamecocks had better hope so, or the 52-20 drilling they took at Sanford Stadium will look even worse than it does in the light of a Monday morning. From a South Carolina perspective, it was often hard to watch. The offense moved in fits and starts, the defense was defenseless, and if not for kicker Elliott Fry, punter Sean Kelly and returner Shon Carson, it would have been a forgettable night all the way around. As it was, the rout served as a cold reminder of just how far USC is from being the top-10 team head coach Steve Spurrier wants it again to be.
So now, in the aftermath, a question — was that just a bad night for USC against a very good Georgia squad, or was it further evidence that this Gamecocks outfit might be ... a bad team?
No question, that sounds harsh. To be fair, South Carolina probably doesn’t win this game even if former quarterback Dylan Thompson discovers a magical additional year of eligibility. After dropping four of five to USC, Georgia pulled out all the stops — the student section was packed an hour before kickoff, the pre-game atmosphere was electric, and the Bulldogs clearly played with a mission. This shaped up as a loss back in August, and it certainly lived up to that Saturday night.
But it was the way USC lost which was so concerning. Lambert and the Bulldog clearly took advantage of the Gamecocks’ deep-playing secondary, using a short underneath passing game to complete one attempt after another. USC’s adjustments had no impact. With a passing game that effective, it was only a matter of time before tailback Nick Chubb found his stride. The Gamecocks needed lots of offense to try and keep up, but USC was only occasionally effective moving the ball behind rotating quarterbacks Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez.
So, what to make of all this? Was that one bad night at Sanford Stadium against an opponent out for blood, or a harbinger of more struggles to come? It certainly didn’t help that USC was playing a pair of backup quarterbacks, and lost its starting tailback to bruised ribs in the second quarter. But with the exception of cornerback Chris Lammons, back home nursing a sprained knee, the defense was at full strength. And it didn’t matter.
You never had the feeling South Carolina could win the game — Georgia was in that much control throughout. But there were moments that led you to believe this undermanned USC team could indeed be competitive, if not Saturday night, than against most of the other opponents on its schedule. The drive which set up USC’s first field goal included several nice completions from Orth, and a leaping snag from freshman D.J. Neal. The third-down conversion from Orth to Jerell Adams on USC’s first touchdown drive might have been USC’s best offensive play of the night. Then there was Nunez, getting the majority of snaps late, and leading the Gamecocks in rushing.
But man, what a tightrope to walk. Nunez’s passing game is a work in progress, certainly not helped by a lack of go-to receivers. Orth had moments when he looked like the leader everyone knows he can be, and others when he looked like a former non-scholarship player. Pharoh Cooper probably still doesn’t get enough touches, even though he was used in almost an H-back role at times Saturday. USC totaled 84 passing yards and 181 rushing yards. That’s hardly going to be enough against anyone, much less a top-10 opponent running virtually unhindered up and down the field.
You don’t want to draw too many immediate conclusions from this, it being only the third game of the season. Heck, at this time last year, the Gamecocks were still nationally ranked. We saw last season that USC over time made the adjustments on defense which gave it a chance to have a winning season and go to a bowl game. With better players (at least on paper), you have to think they can do it again, even as foreboding as the remainder of this schedule may be.
Right now, that seems like the best-case scenario — that USC rights the ship enough on defense to give it a chance at six wins heading into those final three home games against Florida, Citadel and Clemson to close the year. But even that would probably require the offense taking a step forward, no guarantee given the inconsistencies at quarterback and wide receiver.
You don’t want to call this a bad team, not yet. A bad team would cough one up at home against a winless Central Florida squad which was beaten last weekend by Furman. A bad team would quit. As stated before in this space, that Georgia game looked like a mismatch from the beginning, and never shaped up as any kind of barometer for USC’s season. It was a bad night in Athens, no question. The way the Gamecocks react to it will tell us whether it was anything deeper than that.