COLUMBIA — They unveiled the new George Rogers statue Saturday afternoon, amid much pomp and anticipation. A mix of respect for Rogers' 1980 Heisman Trophy season and lifetime contributions to South Carolina blended with excitement for the Gamecocks' sold-out home opener against Kentucky.
By halftime, South Carolina trailed one of the SEC's only other unranked teams by 17 points and the Gamecocks had lost starting quarterback Connor Mitch with a separated shoulder.
As the final seconds ticked off on Kentucky's surprising 26-22 victory Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium, Wildcat fans chanted “Go Big Blue!” loud and clear.
It doesn't mean the season is over, or that South Carolina will miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 2007.
All logic just seems to point that way.
Odds say South Carolina will win one SEC game, and better not take Vanderbilt lightly.
All things considered — a new defensive coordinator, all spring and summer to address weaknesses, major personnel changes up front — giving up 307 yards to Kentucky in the first half was a mockery of the sham that was the Gamecocks' performance in a 52-28 loss to Texas A&M last year.
As head coach Steve Spurrier said years ago after one of his many victories over the Wildcats, “It's only Kentucky.”
The schedule gets harder, starting next week at Georgia.
That's two SEC openers in a row in the dumpster, with 2015 hope now tied to modest consistency on defense and backup quarterback Perry Orth.
The Gamecocks (1-1) don't require statue candidates to have a good season, but it would certainly help if more than two or three players step up and perform well enough to merit All-SEC.
Credit the South Carolina coaching staff for taking a crowbar and flashlight to the playbook in the second half.
How about three different players taking snaps in an effective drive that led to Elliott Fry's field goal that cut the Kentucky lead to 24-13 in the third quarter? In order, running back Brandon Wilds in the Wildcat (34-yard run), followed by conventional quarterbacks, freshman Lorenzo Nunez and Orth.
The evolving cast included changing the backfield pace with No. 3 running back Shon Carson, again.
Hoke said his players held Kentucky's running game in check to give the Gamecocks a fighting chance in the second half simply by playing better “fundamental” football. The same players who missed tackles as the Wildcats piled up 156 yards on the ground to take a 24-7 lead in the first half, made stops after halftime.
“You have to work at it,” Hoke said, “and we will continue to work at it.”
Working urgently will give the new starting quarterback the best chance to succeed.
Every football fan think they have the second-guess answer at quarterback, never mind that coaches spend hours of practice time, film study and sleepless nights coming to depth-chart conclusions.
But Spurrier himself points out that some players perform better when the stadium lights come on, and Orth — despite throwing a critical interception with 4:32 remaining — has the look.
South Carolina doesn't have a star passer on the roster, with Mitch healthy or not. If Orth can game-manage a decent running game and get the ball to Pharoh Cooper often enough, maybe the Gamecocks can win some games.
The 6-1 junior from Ponte Vedra, Fla., calmly completed a fourth-and-2 pass to Deebo Samuel in the right flat before firing his first career touchdown pass — 33 yards to tight end Jerrell Adams with 8:09 left. South Carolina botched the two-point conversion attempt to the tune of Kentucky's Denzil Ware returning a Cooper fumble 98 yards the other way for two points and a 26-22 edge.
“We play these games all the time where it comes down to one play,” Spurrier said.
But Orth grew up a lot in that drive. His teammates were cheering him on. South Carolina, instead of folding as they did too many times last season, out-fought and out-smarted an SEC opponent in the second half.
But it's only Kentucky.
The trick is to make this work against better teams, and without so much heavy lifting after halftime.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff