CHARLOTTE — The Carowinds amusement just outside of town advertises itself as the “Thrill Capital of the Southeast,” but the South Carolina Gamecocks’ backfield might put up a good argument this season.
Starter Connor Mitch threw for only 122 yards Thursday night and yet was flagged for a taunting penalty.
A third-string running back saved the day.
One 17-13 victory over North Carolina into the season, five — count ‘em, five — different Gamecocks have taken quarterback snaps in a Fun ‘N Ball Control offense.
Leave it to South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier to summarize it all in a one-liner.
“I’m encouraged that we played poorly and won,” he said after an unconventional game at Bank of America Stadium that might serve as a blueprint.
Dylan Thompson, Connor Shaw and Stephen Garcia are not walking through that “2001” intro.
At South Carolina, it now takes a village to play quarterback. It works if the defense, suspect throughout a sour 7-6 season last year, makes three interceptions and gets four sacks. And if guys like Shon Carson come off the bench to make 48-yard touchdown runs with the game on the line.
“Just getting a victory in general is a good feeling,” said Mitch, a redshirt sophomore from Raleigh. “Hopefully we can just keep getting better and stronger.”
Mitch will start next week at Williams-Brice Stadium in South Carolina’s SEC opener against Kentucky. But don’t be surprised if wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, running backs Brandon Wilds and David Williams and backup quarterback Perry Orth play a little quarterback, too.
“I don’t know how many quarterbacks they played,” North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. “But they did a good job. They found ways to run the football.”
Hey, Larry. They could have played more quarterbacks. The Gamecocks have yet to unleash freshman Lorenzo Nunez.
Some quarterbacks have big cleats to fill.
It feels like Mitch has three pairs worth.
South Carolina has never had three quarterbacks in a row as productive as Garcia, Shaw and Thompson, Mitch’s predecessors.
Consider that the trio combines for four of the top nine passing yardage seasons in school history (led by Thompson’s 3,564 in 2014) while Mitch had all of six college pass attempts before Thursday night.
Mitch’s nine completions against North Carolina (12 attempts) were short passes, some turned into big gains.
“That’s when I started getting comfortable,” said Mitch, who left the game with cramps and a sore hip before returning to finish off the final drive with hand-offs. “Some shorter throws, some screens, some short routes. That helped me get comfortable and adjust to the game.”
The taunting penalty came in the third quarter after a 22-yard pass to Terry Googer; South Carolina eventually had to punt while behind 13-10.
Mitch: “Two words: I said ‘What’s up?’”
The coaching staff, Mitch said, was more “confused” than upset about the penalty.
Mitch’s progress becomes more important with every swing of Brandon McIlwain’s bat. The highly regarded quarterback, a high school senior from Newtown, Pa., has committed to South Carolina but is also an outfielder who burst onto baseball’s national showcase scene this summer. It’s not good football news for the Gamecocks that only six players selected in the first 10 rounds of the 2015 Major League draft turned down pro baseball offers.
Every at-bat is big for McIlwain next spring.
Mitch is more scrutinized with every throw. The first South Carolina drive Thursday night ended with an awful overthrow.
Mitch on the second drive survived near-disaster when Tar Heels cornerback Des Lawrence dropped an interception that could have been returned for a touchdown.
The intentional part of such a mixed bag of players taking snaps surely confuses defenses. It also cuts down on what Spurrier can do to get Mitch prepared in practice.
For now, throwing experiments against the barn door is the way to go when most games are likely to come down to a few plays on either side of the line of scrimmage.
The Tar Heels might wind up as one of the worst defenses South Carolina plays this season (North Carolina last season ranked 116th among the nation’s 125 FBS teams in scoring defense).
But if the re-booted South Carolina defense plays as well through the season as it did against a theoretically good Tar Heel offense, Mitch will have precious extra time to find a winning rhythm and avoid taunting penalties.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff