COLUMBIA — He was still several weeks away from taking the job as starting quarterback when North Carolina last played its neighbor to the south. Marquise Williams carried the ball just one time for two yards in a lopsided loss to South Carolina two seasons ago. In three months, the Gamecocks will likely see a whole lot more of him.
USC’s season opener Sept. 3 in the Hundred Dollar a Seat Kickoff Spectacular (unofficial name) presents an immediate challenge for a rebuilt Gamecocks defense. North Carolina was hardly a world-beater last season, suffering through a mediocre campaign plagued by many of the same defensive issues which hampered USC. Heading into the season opener in Charlotte, though, there’s one big difference between the two teams — the Tar Heels have a senior quarterback capable of carrying his ball club, while the Gamecocks will likely start a new signal-caller with six career pass attempts to his name.
That’s no knock on Connor Mitch, who earned positive reviews in spring ball. But given that we’re pulling back the curtain on two teams recovering from defensive disasters, it certainly aids UNC’s cause that it has a quarterback in Marquise Williams who threw for 3,000 yards and 21 scores a season ago.
Much like Dylan Thompson at USC last year, Williams had some great games trying to make up for a defense which allowed points by the dump-truck load. He passed for 390 yards and four TDs against Georgia Tech, 345 and four against Clemson, 303 and two against Notre Dame. He was slowed by a hip issue late in the season, and he had his share of interceptions, but the dude can sling it. And on Sept. 3, it’s going to be up to Mitch and that reconstructed USC defense to keep up.
Head coach: Larry Fedora (21-17 in three seasons at UNC, 55-36 in seven seasons overall)
2014 record: 6-7 (4-4 ACC, tied for third in Coastal Division)
Returning starters: 17 (10 offense, seven defense)
Scoring offense: 33.2 points scored per game (36th nationally)
Scoring defense: 38.9 points allowed per game (119th nationally)
Series: North Carolina leads 34-18-4
Opposing beat writer: Andrew Carter, Raleigh News and Observer (@_andrewcarter)
Last meeting: South Carolina won 27-10 on Aug. 29, 2013 at Williams-Brice Stadium. Connor Shaw and Thompson each tossed first-quarter touchdown passes as USC pulled away from the Blue Bellies early on one of the hottest game days in recent memory in Columbia, and that’s saying something.
1. Gene Chizik is now in charge. Of the defense, that is. The former Auburn head man and recent TV commentator is the new coordinator of a UNC defense which last season allowed nearly 500 yards per game. He changed the scheme to a 4-3, he spent the spring focusing on fundamentals. This starting to sound familiar? Now time to see if the guy who won a national title on the Plains can engineer a defensive turnaround in Chapel Hill.
2. Williams missed spring practice. The senior QB had hip surgery to repair the partially torn labrum in his left hip which limited him at the end of season, and was evident in the way his numbers tailed off in the Tar Heels’ final few games. He’s expected back at full speed, and backup Mitch Trubisky got all the reps he wanted during the spring while Williams was out.
3. The 2013 loss to USC wasn’t that long ago. A lot of Fedora’s younger players, like a then-sophomore Williams, got snaps against the Gamecocks toward the end of that game, which was in a much more hostile environment than they’ll face this time around at Bank of America Stadium. “Hopefully those young guys gave grown up,” Fedora said, “and they’re better football players at this time.”
Week before: Fall camp
Next week: Kentucky visits Williams-Brice Stadium for the home and SEC opener
On the horizon: A trip between the hedges