COLUMBIA, S.C. — The past two weeks saw Will Muschamp affirm that Brandon McIlwain would be his starting quarterback in the following game.
There was no such affirmation Saturday night after South Carolina lost 24-13 to No. 9 Texas A&M. Instead, Muschamp’s response was that he would probably have to think through whether it will be McIlwain or senior Perry Orth.
McIlwain, a freshman, started for the third consecutive game. He struggled through three quarters and Orth came in to replace him in the fourth quarter.
“Brandon did some good things in the game,” Muschamp said. “He was not taken out of the game because he played poorly. We felt like vertically getting the ball down the field, we needed to do that.
“Brandon was not playing bad.”
Orth, who had not played a snap in three weeks, did what he was sent in to do. The senior threw for 138 yards on 11-of-18 passing in the fourth quarter. It was a sign of life in an offense that lacked it through the air in the first three quarters.
“Sometimes, all the offense needs is a little spark,” Orth said. “That’s my thing, throwing the ball downfield. They gave me a chance to do that.”
The senior, who started the first two games of the season, completed 3-of-4 passes for 58 yards when he came into the game. The drive ended with Elliott Fry missing a field goal attempt. Orth came through with more of the same on the following drive, completing his first three passes for 29 yards, and it led to a field goal.
Orth said he worked the past two weeks the same way he has his whole career.
“Always getting ready to play no matter what,” Orth said. “They called my number. I worked my butt off during the week to get ready to play. I always cherish the opportunity to do that.”
But the question is, will he continue to receive opportunities next week? In the past two weeks, Muschamp had not ruled out Orth seeing playing time, but it depended upon McIlwain’s play.
Muschamp and the Gamecocks opted for the freshman after a strong second half against Mississippi State. The attempt to inject life into the offense worked briefly against East Carolina. But it has been widely absent since then and was completely so for three quarters against Texas A&M.
McIlwain threw for just 34 yards on 9-of-15 passing and ran 12 times for 7 yards. His running ability certainly helped him get the nod over Orth. Muschamp noted McIlwain’s legs force an opponent to change its approach, which was the case on A.J. Turner’s 75-yard touchdown run, as backside defenders stayed home in case the quarterback pulled it back and ran.
The offense needed life again Saturday and Orth was the choice. He traded in his baseball cap for the first time since Sept. 10 and put on his helmet after the South Carolina defense forced back-to-back turnovers and the offense went three-and-out twice.
Muschamp said the passing offense is not dictated by which quarterback is in the game and similar concepts were called for McIlwain as they were for Orth.
“We carry the same package regardless of who is in the game, as far as those things are concerned,” Muschamp said. “Right now, we have a lot of guys on the perimeter learning those things for the first time. It has nothing to do with who’s at quarterback.”
That remains an important missing piece of the South Carolina offense, as it was without three wide receivers Saturday. Deebo Samuel missed his third consecutive game, Bryan Edwards sat out his first and Randrecous Davis missed his second in a row.
“It’s very difficult in the throwing game right now,” Muschamp said. “Obviously, Deebo and Bryan didn’t play. They sparingly practiced throughout the week. It’s hard to develop any consistency for anybody, much less a freshman quarterback, even a fifth-year senior in Perry. Right now, we are just trying to piece it together as best we can.”
Three weeks ago, that meant McIlwain was the choice at quarterback. The Gamecocks now have a decision to make again between two quarterbacks who tight end Hayden Hurst said, “Both bring awesome things to the table.”
For Orth, he will take the same approach he has been taking. He said he has no expectations on playing time moving forward.
“Whatever coach (Kurt) Roper and coach Muschamp decide is what we are going to do,” he said.