NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A 13-10 game looked a lot more thrilling for South Carolina in the fourth quarter at Vanderbilt on Thursday night. That’s just what the Gamecocks needed after a slow start to the season.
The standouts were many, while the need for improvement also was clear.
We handed out grades (scale of 1-10, 10 being best) to each unit, including coaches, as well as game balls:
It wasn’t a pretty game Thursday night, and the offenses are to blame on both sides. For the Gamecocks, that meant three quarters of largely ineffective play regardless of which quarterback was in the game. Offensive line penalties derailed progress, at times, and the wide receivers, especially Jamari Smith, dropped too many passes.
But Perry Orth picked up his play late and freshman Bryan Edwards was a bright spot at wide receiver. A.J. Turner also came up with some big runs and a big reception as he ran tough, went through contact and showed why he was the No. 1 back coming out of fall camp.
What kept the defense from having an even better opening game was largely a massive disparity in time of possession in the first quarter. The defense was visibly worn out for stretches, and that’s when the Vanderbilt run game started to get a little bit of steam to it.
All things considered, it was a strong first performance for the Gamecocks’ defense. The linebackers tackled well for the most part and the defensive line took on blocks to allow the linebackers to make plays. Also, as far as question marks go this season, the secondary played well even if it was against an ineffective Vanderbilt passing game. JUCO transfer Mark King had a good debut, D.J. Smith had a pair of big hits early in the game, while Rashad Fenton and Chris Lammons each had bright moments as well.
The best players of the day were interior defensive linemen Kelsey Griffin and Taylor Stallworth. The big guys in the middle had a handful of really nice plays to stop the run and help limit Ralph Webb to 97 yards on 20 carries.
Is this Elliott Fry guy any good? He didn’t manage to set the career scoring record at South Carolina on Thursday night, so that has to be taken into consideration. Okay, not really.
The senior kicker hit both of his attempts, and the second one was a game-winning, career-long 55-yard kick. That’s a play that will be pointed to this season no matter the outcome, but especially if the Gamecocks get to six wins and a possible bowl bid.
Beyond Fry’s heroics, Sean Kelly had a very consistent punting performance.
What kept the performance from a perfect 10 was a fumble by Deebo Samuel, as he coughed up a punt return and set up Vanderbilt for points early in the game. Turner also almost had a huge gaffe as he nearly ran the kick out of the end zone to open the game before ducking back in.
The confidence to trot out Fry for a 55-yarder was gutsy, but the kick would have been good from maybe 60.
On two opportunities, the Gamecocks could have gone for it on fourth down, but opted to punt. No harm, no foul despite the lack of aggressive play-calling in those situations in the end. But there will come moments this season where trusting the offense more will come into play. The early plan also was rather conservative before the play calling opened up more with Orth in the game late, as the Gamecocks moved the ball downfield effectively in the fourth quarter.
Play-calling on both sides was solid, especially with some blitzes dialed up at the right time by Travaris Robinson on the defensive side. The play-call leading up to Fry’s kick was okay, but with Turner as the hot hand in the backfield, giving him the ball instead of Orth on a run looked like a better option.
But given what this coaching staff inherited at the start of the spring and the way they pulled it together to win on the road in the opener with so many question marks, it was impressive.
It wasn’t pleasant football largely, but South Carolina got it done at crunch time. Credit to Orth, Edwards, Turner, Fry and the front seven for the win at Vanderbilt.
There’s no doubt a whole lot of work remains because 13 points isn’t going to get it done in many games this season. It was good enough Thursday in a gutsy win for South Carolina to open the Will Muschamp era.
How about this debut for the freshman wide receiver? Eight receptions for 101 yards with a couple of key third-down receptions to move the chains. The Conway, S.C., native also got the ball rolling on the final drive with a first-down reception. His future looks bright.
Normally, this would go to one player, but the front seven had multiple players with bright spots. Bryson Allen-Williams delivered a pair of big hits. Stallworth stuffed an early third-and-short and added a sack later on in the game. It was a great start for that group, which now will face stiffer tests moving forward.
This one needs no real explanation as the senior kicker was the hero, going 3 yards beyond his previous career long to win it.
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.