NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Will Muschamp claimed to have a “pretty good idea” of his plan to handle multiple quarterbacks at South Carolina.
On Thursday night, that plan finally was revealed after the Gamecocks coach elected not to name a starter publicly. Muschamp rolled out senior Perry Orth to start against Vanderbilt and freshman Brandon McIlwain came in early in the second quarter.
It was the widely expected decision, as well as the one that largely appeared the most logical.
“See how things went with Perry,” Muschamp said of his plan going into the 13-10 win. “We wanted to get Brandon in in the first quarter and give him an opportunity. He deserves to play. He deserves to start, too.”
It came down to experience, but not just the difference between the senior Orth and the freshman McIlwain. The decision to go with Orth spread to the experience across the entire offense, as only left tackle Mason Zandi had more than 10 starts to his name. Throw in going on the road to begin the season and Muschamp was set to side with the senior.
“I don’t think it’s good to put a young quarterback in that situation and for him to lose confidence because we are going to need Brandon McIlwain to play well for us this year,” Muschamp said. “I didn’t think that was going to be fair for him.”
Muschamp had said he may not let his quarterbacks know who was starting until as late as Wednesday night, but Orth said they were informed about a week before the game.
“I knew I was going to start the game off, but I knew Brandon was going to play because he deserves to play,” he said. “As you all saw tonight, he showed some signs where he is going to be a big-time player for us and he is going to continue to play throughout the course of the season.”
So it was Orth, who started eight games a season ago and has played at LSU, Tennessee and Georgia. The senior finished 11 of 19 for 152 yards, while McIlwain was 5 of 11 for 35 yards. McIlwain also ran seven times for 29 yards.
The results were not strong early for the Gamecocks offense with Orth leading the way. The first drive netted just 5 yards and the following drive went the wrong way for a loss of 3 yards.
McIlwain got the call to open the second quarter, showing flashes of getting the offense moving as he made plays with his feet and showed off his athletic abilities in moving outside the pocket. His first drive resulted in 31 yards before he moved the Gamecocks into the red zone for the first time. But after a 6-yard run to gain a first down, McIlwain fumbled at the Vanderbilt 12 and the Commodores recovered.
“Brandon, we moved the football with Brandon, but we’ve gotta take care of the football,” Muschamp said. “Really, that’s why we went back with Perry in the second half. We knew it was a 10-point ballgame. Shoot, we are going into the red zone to score there. We’ve just gotta secure the ball better.”
McIlwain struggled to move the ball from there until Orth returned in the third and found his rhythm. He completed a key third down to freshman Bryan Edwards before another big third-down conversion for 30 yards to Deebo Samuel. That drive would result in USC’s first points – a 48-yard field goal from Elliott Fry – and from there, the senior was clicking and so was the South Carolina offense.
He connected with Edwards for a 33-yard gain on his next series, which ended with a punt. But the fourth quarter saw Orth and the Gamecocks finish strong as they struggled to do last season. Orth was 6 of 7 for 58 yards in the final quarter with Edwards being a popular target and A.J. Turner having a key reception that gained 18 yards.
Orth found a boost in seeing the Gamecocks perform as they had throughout camp in the fourth quarter.
“It was good to see us do that in a real game,” Orth said. “It was relieving because we struggled. In your first game, you don’t know how you are going to be offensively. We showed we were capable of moving the ball.”
In the case of the quarterbacks, both showed that they can move the offense with the skills they bring to the table. And it’s clear both will continue to get opportunities moving forward as USC travels to Mississippi State on Saturday.
But on Thursday night, it was Orth that made the key plays in the second half to lead the Gamecocks to the win after getting the start.
“I just went out there and tried to help us win the ballgame,” Orth said. “Not so much about me, but just trying to help our team win because at the end of the day that’s all anybody really cares about.”
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.