After dropping consecutive games to Kentucky and UGA, South Carolina was in danger of suffering a third straight defeat during Saturday’s game against UCF, a team that began the season 0-3.
Largely seen as South Carolina’s scapegoat in the first half, wide receiver Pharoh Cooper redeemed himself in a big way in the third quarter by scoring a pair of touchdowns — one on a 29-yard end-around, and another on a 35-yard bomb from true freshman QB Lorenzo Nunez. Linebacker T.J. Holloman intercepted UCF twice, and Nunez added another passing touchdown as South Carolina reeled off 20 unanswered points to take a 28-14 lead.
The Gamecocks entered halftime down,14-8 and were on upset alert, but they rode a second-half surge to pick up the 31-14 victory.
Here is what went wrong for them early:
With South Carolina leading 5-0 and just over 11 minutes left in the first half, Cooper muffed a punt that was recovered by UCF at the 1-yard line. Tailback Nicki Patti punched in a touchdown run on the very next play, giving the Black Knights a 7-5 advantage and completely changing the complexion of this game.
Pass defense still struggling
UCF finished the first half with just seven yards rushing, but quarterback Bo Schneider still managed to lead his scuffling offense on a seven-play, 93-yard drive late in the first half that ended with a 30-yard passing touchdown from Schneider to Tre’Quan Smith. The march put UCF up, 14-5, and saw Schneider complete all five of his passing attempts.
For a South Carolina defense that only managed five sacks through the first three games and is less than 100 percent healthy in its secondary, this is not what the defensive coaching staff had in mind when it made starting lineup changes earlier this week.
Nunez did his best to respond, guiding South Carolina down to the UCF 9-yard line, but two of his passes in the end zone fell incomplete — one seemingly dropped by Cooper, and the other batted away. The Gamecocks had to settle for a field goal that left them saddled with a six-point deficit.
Nunez has averaged 7.1 yards per carry and looks dynamic when scrambling, but he’s only gone 8-of-16 for 95 yards as a passer. Backup Perry Orth played on one series and threw three incompletions. If South Carolina wants to stay in this game, more balance on offense is an absolute must.
#Gamecocks pass defense remains suspect. A good pass rush disguised it in the first quarter.
— Willie Smith (@willie_t_smith) September 26, 2015