GamecockCentral - Poor first half, better second half theme emerges in first two games
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Poor first half, better second half theme emerges in first two games

Brandon McIlwain carries the ball in Saturday night's game

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- In South Carolina’s Week 1 victory at Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks managed to overcome a poor first half and rally for a hard-fought three-point win over the Commodores.

Saturday night in Starkville in front a cowbell clanging throng of 57,763 mostly maroon-and-white clad fans, the same ‘poor first half-good second half’ scenario unfolded in the Gamecocks’ second road contest to start the 2016 season.

Only this time, the Gamecocks dug too deep of a hole and couldn’t escape.

Outgained 324-90 in total yards and dominated on both sides of the ball during a lethargic first half, USC trailed 24-0 at intermission, which lasted more than an hour due to lightning in the area.

With true freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain directing the offense and the defense looking more inspired and tackling and pursing much better in the second half, the Gamecocks outscored Mississippi State, 14-3, over the final 30 minutes.

“We settled down a bit, played a little better in the second half,” Muschamp said. “I like the way our guys responded in the game and came out and fought in the second half. There will be some bumps in the road. We said it last week, but we will continue to move forward and improve our team.”

Through the first two games, the Gamecocks have outscored the opponents, 27-3, in the second half.

In the end, the badly needed upgraded second half performance proved too little, too late. USC was outgained 161-153 in the second half, but encouraging signs emerged, beginning with the number zero.

As in, zero turnovers. In the first half, the Gamecocks turned the ball over twice on an interception and fumble on consecutive second quarter possessions. The McIlwain-led offense, though, didn’t turn the ball over once as the freshman completed 11-of-22 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns to A.J. Turner (18 yards) and K.C. Crosby (4 yards).

“We weren’t doing anything in the first half, so we needed a change up,” Muschamp said. “At the end of the day, we felt like we needed to change some things up. It’s no different than changing a receiver, running back, tight end or offensive linemen.”

Perry Orth was 9-of-17 passing for 83 yards and the Gamecocks gained just seven net yards rushing on 16 rushing attempts in the first half. Seven first half possessions produced four punts, an interception, a fumble and a missed field goal (55 yards) as the Gamecocks never penetrated the red zone.

On the second touchdown drive, which lasted 13 plays and traveled 83 yards, McIlwain completed six passes, three to true freshman (2 to Bryan Edwards, 1 to Randrecous Davis) and one to a redshirt freshman (Turner).

Three disturbing storylines emerged throughout the 60 minutes – USC couldn’t stop the run (MSU had 289 rushing yards) and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt), the Gamecocks couldn’t run the football (34 net yards on 31 attempts) and the frequently overwhelmed offensive line struggled to keep the Bulldog defenders out of the offensive backfield. Mississippi State totaled four sacks, six quarterback hurries and 11 tackles for loss resulting in 46 negative yards.

As far as the battle between the Gamecock offensive line and Mississippi State defensive line is concerned, the tone was likely set early when the Bulldogs recorded third-down sacks on USC’s first two possessions, whipping the Gamecocks blockers up front.

“We just got physically beat on both lines of scrimmage,” Muschamp said. “I credit those guys. They whipped us twice on third down situations for sacks on the first two third downs of the game. We had a hard time running it. They really jammed everything up inside. We went to more of a perimeter running game in the second half that helped us.”

NOTES:

-- Captains for South Carolina were TE Hayden Hurst, OL Mason Zandi, DE Marquavius Lewis and LB Jonathan Walton.

-- The loss snapped USC’s seven-game win streak against Mississippi State. It was the Gamecocks’ first loss to Mississippi State since a 17-0 loss to the Bulldogs on Sept. 25, 1999 in Starkville. South Carolina leads the all-time series, 9-7.

-- McIlwain’s TD passes featured a number of firsts. He completed his first career touchdown pass in the third quarter to Turner. The reception was also Turner’s first career touchdown in a Gamecock uniform. Crosby’s 4-yard touchdown reception from McIlwain in the fourth quarter marked his first career touchdown in a Gamecock uniform. Crosby caught 3 passes for 14 yards.

-- Sophomore tight end Hayden Hurst tallied a career-high eight receptions for a career-high 68 yards.

-- Senior LB T.J. Holloman’s second quarter interception was his first of the season and the sixth of his career. He had seven tackles in the game. Junior defensive tackle Ulric Jones led the Gamecocks with a career-high nine tackles.