Dowdle

Rico Dowdle punished the Volunteers for 140 yards on Saturday. Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA

COLUMBIA — Can’t figure this team out, except to channel Yogi Berra.

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

South Carolina again piddled around early and pulled together late. The Gamecocks, keeping with the theme of the season, followed a loss with a win and have a chance to notch their first winning streak next week at Mississippi. There’s still a lot to be concerned about and a lot of areas where problems have seemingly been fixed.

Can’t bet on that same trend continuing, because it’s been so difficult to string two consistent performances together. But it’s always easier to think it will change next time when coming off a win this time.

Seven takeaways from USC’s win over Tennessee:

Colluding with the rushers

USC wanted to lean on the run and did so, sticking with it even when trailing 14-3 and 21-9. The Gamecocks piled up 224 yards, with Rico Dowdle toting 14 times for 140 yards.

The run worked against a Volunteers defense that was 10th in the SEC against the rush before the game, and the Gamecocks are 17-3 in their last 20 games when rushing for at least 100 yards. With Mississippi (14th) and Florida (11th) also pretty bad at stopping the run, not much question what USC will want to do the next two weeks. And a quarterback can’t throw an interception or have a receiver drop a pass if a running back is carrying the ball, right?

Coach Boom?

Not sure who’s in charge of the pre-game speeches, but in the age of hiring everybody possible and making them an “analyst,” there has to be an extra 50 grand in the kitty to hire a motivational coach. Whatever USC is currently doing — and keep in mind Will Muschamp earned his nickname for some fiery tantrums, up to and including smashing a dry erase board — is not working.

“Started slow … I don’t know what the answer is,” Muschamp said after USC ripped another first-quarter stinker. “We’ve exhausted about every measure we could as far as how we measure our team.”

Put it this way — if USC could guarantee that every second half would be as grand as the first quarter wasn’t, the fans would accept it, although the merchants who sell heart medication around town would see their fortunes dwindle. The Gamecocks are a stunning 12-4 in one-score games under Muschamp, when he was 8-10 at Florida in the same category.

Just can’t play from behind every time. Eventually, it’s going to catch up. Whether too excited or not excited enough or simply not hearing something that the majority of the starters need to hear, USC is brutally harsh to watch immediately after the opening kickoff.

Tougher than leather

He won’t get a lot of credit because the running game was so fluid and he did throw another interception, his 16th in 11 games (but one that was tipped at the line). And at the end of the day, it was against a pretty bad Tennessee team.

Jake Bentley deserves a lot of applause for being one tough competitor, who completed the comeback he couldn’t quite get against Texas A&M against the Vols. He made some big-time throws, directed the offense without a turnover after the first quarter and stuck his nose into the end zone on that crucial two-point conversion, where a vicious hit put him that close to taking his meals through a straw. But he soldiered on.

“When you’re the quarterback at South Carolina and it’s not going well, you’re going to be the brunt of the criticism,” Muschamp said. “It doesn’t help in recruiting, but if they want to buy a ticket and boo, that’s fine.”

Third down is what?

USC was one of the best teams in the country at preventing third-down pickups, while Tennessee was one of the worst at picking them up. The Vols converted 11 of 16.

The Gamecocks stopped the ones they had to — two in the fourth quarter that led to two fourth-down tries, which they also stopped — but that opened a Pandora’s box that may not be shut for a while.

Tennessee had the benefit of a quarterback in Jarrett Guarantano who could still deliver the ball despite knowing the rushing defender wanted to postmark him. They spread the Gamecocks out and put receivers in space that was just cleared by the blitz. USC is a carousel in the secondary right now where freshmen are outplaying seniors.

See the above note about problems thought solved becoming problems again.

And blue

The Gamecocks’ all-black togs meshed nicely with the beating Tennessee put on them. There was a span of four plays where USC’s best receiver (Bryan Edwards), running back (Dowdle) and quarterback (Bentley) were shaken up from the make-em-bleed Vols defense.

Nobody was seriously hurt, but that caused some gulps about what that would mean going forward.

New quarters

Bryan McClendon wanted to leave the press box and come down to the field, not because it helps him spy defenses and call plays, but it helps him coach his wide receivers better since he’s right there with them.

Something worked. USC didn’t drop a pass all night. Shi Smith technically did drop one — but the play never happened due to pass interference and it was a hard ball to haul in under a defender.

Deebo Samuel should also be credited for the touchdown he caught with one hand, his palm gripping the tail end of the ball. Some were concerned with the poor play call that set it up instead of properly applauding the catch.

It’s six-sational

The way the Gamecocks have played makes no game a guarantee, but the road to six wins and bowl eligibility is a lot clearer. Chattanooga and the Dec. 1 makeup game can take care of that.

But there’s a difference much bigger than a game between six and seven wins. Seven wins puts USC in that Tampa-Jacksonville-Charlotte-Nashville-Memphis bowl tier instead of the Shreveport-Birmingham slots. Warmer weather plus non-Christmas conflicts means a lot more tickets sold.

And seven isn’t the limit. Win that Nov. 24 game and the fans would follow the Gamecocks through the gates of hell … which they may have done already if they go to that Nov. 24 game.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.