COLUMBIA, S.C. – It was the Brandon McIlwain show early Saturday for South Carolina. But it was the defense that got the job done with its back to the end zone multiple times to steal the show in a 20-15 win against East Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The freshman quarterback made his first start for the Gamecocks after a strong second half last week at Mississippi State. He led two quick touchdown drives, while East Carolina couldn’t get into the end zone until late in the fourth quarter.
The Pirates had ample opportunities, but the Gamecocks defense turned from being shredded a week ago to a turnover machine. USC forced three turnovers inside the red zone, all in the end zone, to keep the Pirates at bay.
The Gamecocks took less than five minutes to score as many points as they did in 60 last Saturday. It was a wild swing from the previous two games, which saw the Gamecocks lacking any life in the first half.
A.J. Turner provided the first jolt with an 80-yard return on the opening kickoff. McIlwain ran untouched into the end zone twice to give USC the start it sorely needed.
South Carolina now has scored a season-high 17 points. There's 7:58 to play in the first quarter.
— Mike Wilson (@MikeWilsonAJC) September 17, 2016
Moment that mattered
There’s not one, but three that have to be on the same level of importance. The Gamecocks had two interceptions in the end zone and both came after ECU shredded their defense down the field. They also had a forced fumble near the goal line to thwart another ECU drive.
Mark King made the first in acrobatic fashion on a bizarre play call from ECU with worse execution. The Pirates went away from the ground and called for quarterback Philip Nelson to throw a fade. He threw a bad one and King made a great play on it.
Chris Lammons made the second as he dove in front of another bad Nelson throw inside the red zone. It was a nice day for Nelson, at least until he got into the red zone.
Chris Lammons says "I'll take that!"
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 17, 2016
Then Antoine Wilder knocked the ball loose from ECU running back Anthony Scott inside the 5 and D.J. Smith fell on it in the end zone. If not for those three huge defensive plays, the Gamecocks probably see a different outcome Saturday.
Making their mark
More first-year players contributed against East Carolina than in the previous two weeks. But it was more about who made the impact than just young players coming in. The Gamecocks need more from their defensive line and their wide receivers. Those are the two spots that saw players make marks Saturday.
D.J. Wonnum and Kier Thomas posted their first career sacks on the defensive line. But wide receiver Randrecous Davis was the highlight of them all with two catches for 26 yards along with a run for 7 yards.
His leaping sideline catch in the third quarter as McIlwain threw off his back foot under pressure in the end zone was an outstanding play. But he showed his dynamic ability with the ball in his hands consistently. He’s quick in space, can make people miss and looks like he can be a valuable piece of the offense.
But Davis’ showing mattered for more than just helping to win Saturday. The Gamecocks were without Deebo Samuel, who did not dress likely due to a hamstring injury. But they need more weapons in the passing game, which Davis now appears to be along with Samuel and Bryan Edwards. Throw in the tight ends – Hayden Hurst and K.C. Crosby, in particular – and USC has to like what it has moving forward.
Head coach Will Muschamp was asked one question about Chris Lammons last week. It was simple – he was asked why Mark King was inserted in favor of Lammons. He answered with a comment about needing to play physically to play at South Carolina.
Message received by Lammons. Beyond his end zone interception, the cornerback had one of the most physical plays of the day. He came on a cornerback blitz and initially missed Nelson. But once Thomas had Nelson by the ankles, Lammons came back with a vengeance and smacked Nelson, popping the ball loose.
It’s safe to say Muschamp will have a different tone in talking about Lammons after this one. Lammons and three new starters opened the game for the Gamecocks. It was a strong message from Muschamp and it appeared to work. The secondary bent many times, but never broke.
The secondary did, however, draw a few pass interference and defensive holding flags. That issue will need to be corrected.