NASHVILLE, Tenn. – South Carolina hadn’t pieced together a drive of more than 47 yards going into the fourth quarter Thursday night.
But when the pressure was on, the Gamecocks turned it up behind the awakened play of senior quarterback Perry Orth. Orth engineered an 84-yard drive to get the Gamecocks in the end zone for the first time and followed it up with a 36-yard drive to give South Carolina a chance to win it late.
Elliott Fry drilled a career-high 55-yard field goal with 35 seconds left to get the Will Muschamp era off to a roaring start with a 13-10 win at Vanderbilt.
Orth got the start at quarterback, but didn’t shine until the fourth quarter. The senior found freshman Bryan Edwards time and time again to put together the 84-yard drive that was capped with an 8-yard touchdown scamper from Deebo Samuel.
With confidence on his side, Orth took the ball on the USC 27 after Vanderbilt’s Tommy Openshaw missed a 45-yard field goal with 3:44 to play. Orth hit Edwards for a quick 16-yard gain and A.J. Turner broke outside for a 17-yard run to have the Gamecocks were flying into Vanderbilt territory.
Fry trotted out after a 1-yard loss on a run from Orth and connected squarely on the 55-yarder to send the USC sideline into a frenzy. Fry was 2 of 8 on kicks beyond 50 yards prior the attempt with a career long of 52 yards.
Vanderbilt took a 10-0 lead into halftime behind a 36-yard Openshaw field goal and a 1-yard touchdown run from Khari Blasingham.
Moment that mattered
With 1:24 to play in a 10-10 game and a third-and-5 coming, co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper was faced with the biggest call of the night.
He opted to run, which seemed like the correct option with Vanderbilt down to one timeout and the Gamecocks on the 36-yard line. But he went with an Orth run after sending Turner in motion. Orth was brought down for a 1-yard loss, but Fry connected on a career-long 55-yard field goal to put the Gamecocks ahead 13-10.
Muschamp makes good on promise
It wasn’t made public, but the public widely expected it: Orth started the game for the Gamecocks. But nothing developed with the senior at the helm – partially due to offensive penalties on the first series – and Muschamp turned to freshman Brandon McIlwain to play two quarterbacks like he said the Gamecocks would.
For the first two drives involving the freshman, it appeared the Gamecocks had more offensive momentum. But McIlwain fumbled away a drive and great field position after he ran for a first down to the Vanderbilt 6-yard line. That was the best that McIlwain did in his first-half drives, all of which came in the second quarter.
The offense moved the ball much more effectively in the second half when Orth returned, but that was largely a credit to big third-down completions for the only big-yardage plays of the night.
Then came the fourth-quarter drive where everything finally clicked for the Gamecocks on offense, as Orth, A.J. Turner and Bryan Edwards moved the offense with big gainers.
South Carolina came out with an eight-play drive to open the game offensively, but it netted more penalties (three) than it did yards (two). All three penalties came on the offensive line, a hold, an illegal man downfield and a false start. All three came on first-down plays and put the offense behind the sticks before it had a chance to get going.
Another offensive line penalty – a Zack Bailey hold – negated a 42-yard run from Turner to put the Gamecocks into Vanderbilt territory. USC overcame that one thanks to a pair of big third-down throws from Orth, but it could have been costly.
Penalties were an issue at points in preseason camp, Muschamp said, and they were at unfortunate points Thursday night.
Trusting the defense
Twice in the game South Carolina was in position where they could have gone for it on fourth-and-short. Both times, Muschamp elected to trust his defense when going for it looked like a solid option.
Of the two, going for it the second time seemed the most logical. South Carolina had the ball with around 2:00 before halftime and a fourth-and-4 from the Vanderbilt 40. Instead of going for it, Muschamp had Sean Kelly take a delay of game and punt with more room. With a Vanderbilt passing attack that had gone nowhere and not much time left, the gamble of going for it and not converting likely wouldn’t have led to points. Vanderbilt ran out the clock with run plays after taking possession.
On the first chance, Muschamp initially sent the offense back out to face a fourth-and-2 at the Vanderbilt 45-yard line. But after a review gave him time to think about it, Muschamp opted to punt.
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.