South Carolina fell 47-23 to the Alabama Crimson Tide this past Saturday, dropping to 1-2 on the season. Through three games of the nation’s toughest schedule, the record is again on the negative side. However, there were positives that can be pulled from this weekend, and a few reasons to expect better results in the final three quarters of the season. The Gamecocks offense has found a spark from freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski taking over. He, and they, proved the last two games that they can perform at a high level.
The Gamecocks Offense Finds Spark
After a brutal stretch, spanning three games and two seasons, South Carolina finally looks productive on offense again. They are also not a finished product, but signs are pointing upward. This unit still has plenty of things to work on, but there is definitely a little more juice to this team when they have the ball now. Hilinski has looked calm, confident, and ready for the moment, both in his first start against Charleston Southern, and his first taste of SEC football against Alabama. With a defense that is still trying to find its way, the young QB and his play makers will need to be at a high level from here on out.
3 If By Air
It has been impressive to watch the freshman signal caller from California step into the lead role for the Gamecocks offense. He has been crisp and decisive with his decision making through his first two starts. Hilinski did not seem at all phased when facing the reigning SEC champions Saturday. He has also made a few throws in his young tenure that show off just how talented his right arm is. Early returns would suggest the Gamecocks offense is in very good hands for the foreseeable future. The next test is seeing how handles a hostile environment in next week’s game at Missouri.
One of the big reasons that Hilinski has gotten off to such a good start is the pass catching tandem of Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith. Both of these players have stepped up in a big way the past two weeks. Coach Will Muschamp spoke often after the loss to North Carolina about needing to get these two the ball. The message was received. Edwards’ physicality has been most impressive this season. He has been fighting through contact after getting his hands on both passes and punts. The senior is showing why he will go down as one of the best receivers in school history when he is done. Smith’s touchdown catch over two Alabama defenders served as a moment to show off his versatile skill set. The junior’s hands, focus, strength, and athletic ability were all on display there.
Line Switch Adds Punch
South Carolina shuffled the interior line after the season opening loss, and the results have been very good. The running game looks solid, and the pass protection has improved as well. Senior Donnell Stanley moved from guard to center, and it solidified things. The erratic snap issues of game one have also gone away. Run plays that utilized pulling guards have become the best option for the ground attack. The Gamecocks’ execution on those plays has been sharp and effective. They also have a couple of tailbacks taking full advantage of the opportunities they provide.
Rico Dowdle was an enigma in garnet and black with his inconsistent performances over the last three seasons. The senior seems to have put it all together now, and he has been excellent. He is finishing runs much better, fighting through tacklers and gaining extra yards on almost every carry. Dowdle has also shown better vision and decisiveness in his cuts, making quick decisions and bursting up field. He is averaging seven yards per touch on 33 rushes and seven receptions. Tavien Feaster has also fit in nicely after arriving this summer. He is putting up 70 yards of offense a game, and showed his break away ability with a long touchdown run in the opener. This duo should push each other to get stronger game by game.
Not All Roses
The Gamecocks offense has shown signs it can be very productive moving forward, but things certainly aren’t perfect. There are definitely some areas of situational football that have to improve. South Carolina did not capitalize fully on its scoring chances in Saturday’s loss. Some of that can be attributed to caliber of opponent, but execution in the red zone needs to be better. Hilinski also showed his youth on two productive drives that yielded no points. He fumbled a snap late in the first half backing the team up a few yards on a 2nd and goal at the one. The freshman’s one bad decision in the air came later, when he forced a ball into double coverage instead of checking it down to an open receiver at the first down marker. His mistake was punished as the Tide safety picked it off in the end zone.
As the youngster grows through game experience, the team’s situational execution should improve. South Carolina will need it to, as they can not keep leaving points on the field. The guys Hilinski is throwing to can also help. While the aforementioned lead tandem has been very good, the rest of the pass catcher have struggled at times. This team is still hampered by some ill timed drops on extremely make-able plays. Right before the interception Saturday, OrTre Smith dropped a pass that hit his hands and would have pick up a first down. Smith has otherwise been solid in his return from injury, but that miscue hurt. Josh Vann and Nick Muse have also added to the dropped passes total.
The Gamecocks offense is still trying to find the best way to utilize the explosive Dakereon Joyner. Expect his role to expand week by week. Tight end Kyle Markway has been a pleasant surprise at a position hit hard by injuries in fall camp.
Put Up or Shut Up
South Carolina has shown it can attack defenses in multiple ways, now it needs the results to go with the production. The next two weeks may be one of the most crucial stretches in Muschamp’s tenure in Columbia. His Gamecocks travel to face the Missouri Tigers this weekend, and follow that up with a visit from the Kentucky Wildcats. These two match-ups represent two different trends, one good and one that’s maddening. The latter of those trends is that the Wildcats have won five in a row over South Carolina, and that simply can not continue. The men in garnet and black have won last three over the Tigers. They need to extend that streak on the road this Saturday to help turn this back in the right direction.