GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The question surely was on Will Muschamp’s mind this week. The South Carolina coach has previously pondered why his team plays differently at home than it does on the road.
Then it went on the road Saturday and played differently than it had in the previous three weeks – the stretch that saw the Gamecocks rise from another bad season to likely playing December football. The Gamecocks fell Saturday, 20-7 to Florida, in their first road game since Sept. 24, looking more like that September team than the October version and leaving the question of why South Carolina plays differently away from home.
“I do feel like we are a different team at home and that’s not a good thing,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got to learn to go on the road and play well. That’s something I told the guys in the locker room, ‘Learn from it and move forward.’ ”
South Carolina saw early-season struggles come back to the forefront, missing tackles in the run game, dropping passes and turning over the ball. But the main focus after the game was the way the game started for the Gamecocks.
In stark contrast to recent weeks, it was a stagnant start for South Carolina. The Gamecocks raced out to early leads in their previous three games and had not trailed since the conclusion of their loss to Georgia on Oct. 9, but fell behind 14-0 in the first half Saturday.
“It’s intensity – mental intensity,” linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “Coach Muschamp talks about it all the time, you’ve got to be focused. We came out a little flat. We didn’t come out as fast as we needed to on the road and playing against a good team. Against a good team like that, you can’t start slow and we started slow.”
The USC drive chart reads something like fingernails on a chalkboard to anyone with an interest in offensive football: Punt, punt, punt, punt, fumble, punt, end of half, punt, punt, interception.
It started promisingly, though. Freshman quarterback Jake Bentley checked into the right play on the first snap – after Muschamp aggressively took the ball after winning the coin toss – and running back Rico Dowdle gained 8 yards. But Dowdle was stuffed on back-to-back plays and the Gamecocks went three-and-out.
The USC defense, despite its bad tackling early on, was opportunistic, as it has been at many points this season. Allen-Williams had a hand in two fumbles, one forced and one recovered, and the defense put the ball back in the offense’s hands.
“You see the defense killing themselves out there to try and get us the ball,” running back David Williams said. “Then we finally get the ball twice and we can’t do nothing with it.”
The signs of life came late, as the offense put together a strong 11-play, 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter to get points on the board with Williams’ 1-yard touchdown run. A final 8-play, 71-yard drive almost made it a one score game, but Bentley’s final pass fell incomplete just beyond the reach of tight end Hayden Hurst.
There were flashes, at times, early as well – highlighted by Bryan Edwards’ leaping grab over Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor. But they were few and far between in the first half, an issue that the Gamecocks haven’t had playing at Williams-Brice Stadium as often.
“You got to go out there and have the right mentality from the get-go,” offensive tackle Mason Zandi said. “You can’t get down early away. You can’t let the crowd get into it.”
The Gamecocks return home to play Western Carolina on Saturday, a welcome site for a team needing one more win to become bowl eligible. But then it’s back to the road for the toughest test of the season, a rivalry clash at Clemson. They’ll need to try to find some answers for the road woes before then – answers that were lacking Saturday in Gainesville.
“I don’t know,” Williams said. “It’s just how the game plays out.”