CHARLOTTE — Whatever it takes.
Six different players taking snaps under center, three of them on the same possession? The starting quarterback split out as a wide receiver? A 17-yard gain on a fake punt in the first quarter? Two interceptions in the end zone? A go-ahead, 48-yard touchdown burst delivered by a third-string running back?
Whatever it takes.
Welcome to the unpredictable world of South Carolina football in 2015, which began Thursday night with a 17-13 victory over North Carolina before 51,664 at Bank of America Stadium. Starting quarterback Connor Mitch was as apt to line up at receiver as he was behind center. The defense bent, bent, bent — but didn’t break. And Shon Carson delivered the big blow, a 48-yard touchdown rush with 12:45 remaining that put USC ahead for good.
“That’s sort of what you do when you’re not a good passing team, mix around a bunch of guys,” said Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier. “We’ll probably keep doing that, and trying to run the ball effectively. That’s sort of what we do right now.”
And the Gamecocks’ defense, overhauled after a disastrous 2014 campaign, used two interceptions from Skai Moore — the latter on a fourth-and-goal with 3:29 left — and another by Jordan Diggs to limit the Tar Heels and senior quarterback Marquise Williams to a single touchdown. Kelsey Griffin recorded two sacks, as many as any individual USC defender managed during all of last season.
“To come up with a few big plays and shut a team out (in the second half) that was moving the ball up and down the field in the first half, that was big for our group of guys,” said Gamecocks co-defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.
Mitch, making his first career start, got the Gamecocks into the end zone early with a nine-yard touchdown strike to Pharoh Cooper. But the redshirt sophomore had an uneven debut, completing 9-of-22 attempts for 122 yards, and leaving the game briefly in the second half due to a hip pointer. Mitch did complete passes of 16 and 20 yards to set up a 25-yard Elliott Fry field goal.
“I had some jitters coming into the game but as you could see, the offense settled in and the offense started moving the ball consistently,” said Mitch, whom Spurrier said would be the starter next week against Kentucky, health permitting. “After the second drive or so, I got a feel for what they were doing.”
After finishing 13th in the SEC last season in total defense, the Gamecocks hired a new co-coordinator in Jon Hoke and added a number of new players to beef up a unit which struggled to finish tackles and close out games. Those same problems were occasionally still apparent against the Tar Heels, who needed just 1:11 to complete their only touchdown drive, capped by a 21-yard strike from Williams to Bug Howard.
But while USC’s defense allowed 440 yards, it stood firm when it mattered most. The Gamecocks limited the Tar Heels to field goals on a pair of first-half possessions, and Diggs’ interception ended a UNC drive which had reached the South Carolina 21. Moore picked off Williams twice in the end zone, the first on a third-and-goal from the 7 in the opening quarter, and the second to provide the biggest play of the game.
USC had given the ball to the Tar Heels after failing on a fourth-and-1 at the UNC 12. Williams led North Carolina down the field, but the drive bogged down in the red zone after the quarterback was sacked by Gamecocks tackle Dante Sawyer. From fourth-and-goal at the Gamecocks 8, Williams rifled the ball into the end zone — and again found Moore, whose second pick put the game away.
“It was big. We needed a stop,” Moore said. “We bent, but we didn’t break. We held our ground when our backs were against the wall.”
Ward said USC switched from man to zone coverage on the fourth-down play, and “Skai did a good job of reading (Williams’) eyes.” The UNC quarterback finished 19-of-31 for 232 yards, but was sacked four times and threw three interceptions.
“Got to give them credit. Got to give them credit. They’re the ones who made the plays in the red zone,” said North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora. “But at the same time, we didn’t execute.”
For much of the game, neither did USC, which committed eight penalties for 60 yards and was outgained by 46 yards in total offense. But on both sides of the ball, the Gamecocks made plays when they needed to, even if they only kept the clock moving or converted a first down. South Carolina held the ball for 11 more minutes and converted seven of its 15 third-down attempts, all of it helping to keep Williams and the fast-paced UNC offense off the field.
Sometimes, that took a little ingenuity. On one series alone, Cooper started at quarterback while Mitch was split wide. Then Mitch went back behind center, then Cooper returned, then Brandon Wilds took a direct snap before Mitch and Cooper took turns at quarterback yet again. Counting Perry Orth’s fill-in duty for Mitch, direct snaps taken by David Williams, and Kelly’s fake punt, six players took offensive snaps from under center.
“That’s our offense,” said Cooper, who finished with three receptions for 45 yards. “We don’t have really a lot of experienced guys, so a lot of guys are going to be rotating in to see who can play.”
Whatever it takes. Welcome to 2015. “The football gods smiled on the Gamecocks tonight,” Spurrier said. “Really proud of our entire team.”