In the one week since Kentucky traveled to Williams-Brice Stadium and punched South Carolina in the mouth, it’s been nothing short of a freakout among garnet and black faithful on Palmetto State sports radio. The team’s best playmaker and best offensive lineman are out, for who knows how long. The quarterback is inconsistent. The play-calling is inadequate. The running game is nonexistent.
And among all those complaints lighting up the airwaves, a subtext: The offense as a whole is suddenly bearing too many uncomfortable similarities to another one that coach Will Muschamp oversaw somewhere else.
And that was all before Saturday, when the Gamecocks needed an incredible throw from Jake Bentley, an even better catch from Bryan Edwards, and a first career made field goal from Parker White to escape — Louisiana Tech? At home? The same team that gave up 57 points to the last SEC opponent it played?
Indeed. The final statistics will show that South Carolina gained a season-best 438 yards Saturday, but 207 of that came in the fourth quarter, and the entire performance will hardly ease concerns over two straight games now in which South Carolina’s offense has ranged from halting to inconsistent. The Gamecocks managed to pull off the comeback Saturday, but the thrill of surviving the near-miss will quickly give way to worries over how much longer South Carolina will have to walk this tightrope.
And then, the radio waves are certain to light up again. No question, Gamecocks fans had to expect an adjustment period with receiver Deebo Samuel out with a broken bone in his leg, and right tackle Zack Bailey — South Carolina’s only NFL-ready offensive lineman — out with a high ankle sprain. But the reality on a steamy day in Columbia was sobering. Shut out for more than three quarters by an opponent from Conference USA?
It wasn’t a mirror image of the week before, when the Gamecocks were simply beat physically by the Wildcats, but the turnovers, missed field goals and blown red-zone chances against Louisiana Tech very nearly added up to the same result. Bentley, so criticized after his uneven performance a week earlier, was downright heroic in a fourth quarter that included a gutsy TD throw to OrTre Smith and a crucial 24-yard rush on third down before his game-saving bomb to Edwards.
And yet, the defense was supposed to be weak link on this South Carolina team, and that defense — with the notable exception of a misplayed double coverage on the big gain that set up the Bulldogs’ go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter — is the reason the Gamecocks survived this weekend at 3-1. This offense exhibited some warning signs by bogging down in the second half against N.C. State and stumbling over itself early against Kentucky, in both cases before Samuel and Bailey went down. Then there was Saturday, and the cavalcade of self-inflicted errors that forced a memorable comeback.
All of this, of course, is cast against the backdrop of what happened to Muschamp in his last head-coaching job. The spectre of those Florida offenses, which led to Muschamp’s firing in Gainesville, still hangs heavy over the heads of the South Carolina fan base. Any other coach, and a few games of offensive struggles would be chalked up as just that. With Muschamp, fair or not, it’s viewed as a troubling return of a personal trend.
Which is why, after watching the Gamecocks sputter against Kentucky, people freaked out. Which is why, after the near catastrophe against Louisiana Tech, people will freak out again. Which is why every offensive snap next weekend at Texas A&M will be analyzed to an endless degree. When it comes to offense, Muschamp doesn’t have much margin for error. After the past two weekends, it seems the Gamecocks don’t, either.