football Edit

Scott Davis: Never Say Die

USC tight end Hayden Hurst reflects on missing a last-minute touchdown catch last Saturday at Florida. Hurst and the Gamecocks can become bowl eligible Saturday with a win over Western Carolina in the 2016 home finale at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Chris Gillespie

GamecockCentral.com columnist Scott Davis, who has followed USC sports for more than 30 years, provides commentary from the perspective of a Gamecocks fan. You can follow Scott on Twitter at @scdonfire.

About midway through the first quarter, I had that old feeling.

I’ve had it several times this season. The Mississippi State game comes to mind. So does the Texas A&M game. And the Georgia game.

As I watched the Gamecocks struggle to mount anything resembling a push on offense, and the Gators looking more physically imposing than a tribe of Vegas club bouncers, I felt a tingling in my chest that told me one thing: It’s just not happening today.

This does not make me a quote-unquote “bad fan.” (And by the way, can we go ahead and do away with the whole “I’m a ‘good’ fan and you’re a ‘bad’ fan” debate? Fans are fans – they’re good, bad, dumb, smart, happy, passionate, proud, silly, irrational, hateful, big-hearted and loving, all at the same time.)

As a matter of fact, I came away from this game with a strange sense of encouragement, which I’ll explain shortly.

Still, when you’re watching an “It’s Just Not Happening Today” game, you know it early. There’s a short checklist you can run through in your mind:

1. Are receivers dropping catchable balls and doing it often?

2. Are the Gamecocks just getting straight-up owned on both lines of scrimmages?

3. Is our running game sputtering harder than the engine of a 1974 Buick?

4. Is an opposing running back gliding up the middle for 10 or 12 or 15 yards at a time before a single human being in Garnet and Black touches him?

5. Does it feel like the opposing offense can always make a first down if it really wants to make one?

6. Is anything wacky happening, like opposing punt returners nearly breaking off for a touchdown every time they touch the ball, or crazy penalties, or bizarre turnovers?

If you can answer “yes” to most of those questions, congratulations: You’re watching an “It’s Just Not Happening Today” game.

They happen. And with a young team on the road, they’re sometimes unavoidable.

But this team is different from previous editions of the Gamecocks. When they find themselves stuck inside an “It’s Just Not Happening Today” game against a stronger, faster, more talented team, they stop the bleeding, take a stand, try to make something positive happen and simply refuse to let themselves get embarrassed and run out of the stadium.

These Gamecocks don’t allow early 14-0 deficits to devolve into 49-3 debacles. They may give up what seems like 50,000 yards to the opposing offense, but when you look at the scoreboard at the end of the game, the other team will have somewhere in the vicinity of 20-25 points and the game will appear to have been fairly competitive even if didn’t really feel that way.

You know what that smells like to me? The warm aroma of progress.

It’s progress. It might not seem like it to you. But it is.

These are the baby steps forward that we needed to see in Year One of the Muschamp Era. You wanted giant steps? They were never going to happen this year, not with a razor-thin roster loaded with freshmen, sophomores, inexperienced veterans and role players.

Baby steps are enough in 2016.

Because Gamecock historians like me remember the blowouts. Oh, do we ever remember. Even the passage of time and several shots of whiskey won’t make the memories go away.

The entire Brad Scott Era was simply one extremely long, five-year blowout, to the point that I started to feel like I was being blown out in my own personal life, even while doing mundane things like going to the grocery store or picking up the mail.

Lou Holtz? The old man could get blown out with the best of them. Does 63-17 ring a bell?

Even Saint Steve Spurrier found himself on the wrong end of a thrashing or two. I’ll never forget sitting in the upper deck at Auburn in 2005, watching the Tigers run South Carolina out of the stadium, the city, the state and the entire nation.

Those kinds of games provide a special kind of pain. You start wondering if you care more about Gamecock football than the players and coaches do, even if it’s not true. You start wondering why you’re wearing a black Gamecock polo shirt and hollering and fidgeting in the stands if the guys on the field don’t particularly want to be there.

And ugly flashbacks like that help to remind me why I’ve admired this 2016 team so much. They’re severely limited from a talent and depth perspective. It would be fairly easy for them to surrender when it’s clear they’re about to be overwhelmed. But they will not allow you to embarrass them. They will not allow you to humiliate them.

They will not say die, even if the scoreboard says they’re already dead.

Sure, I suppose there’s still time left for an opponent to open up a can on them. They’ve still got to hit the road and play a Clemson team that will somehow find its way in the Playoff at the end of the year even though the Tigers lost at home as a 24-point favorite to mediocre Pittsburgh.

Perhaps our archrivals will be the ones to finally send these guys hurtling towards an epic humiliation.

But I don’t think so. These kids and these coaches have shown their resolve, time and again.

That’s the resolve they’ll need to carry with them into 2017 and beyond, when the next step is to learn to truly compete, and then to win.

The “Baby Steps are Enough for Now” Game Balls of the Week

Let’s toss out a few Game Balls to our weekly winners:

Going Ahead and Getting This Whole “Jake Bentley Still Hasn’t Thrown an Interception” Thing Over With in a Situation That Had No Bearing on the Game’s Final Outcome – The true freshman somehow managed to weather almost 16 full quarters of college football before he finally tossed a pick, and the more those CBS announcers kept talking about it, the more I just kind of wanted to get the whole thing over and done with. I sure didn’t want to be watching the Clemson game and hearing someone say, “I’ll tell you what, this kid Bentley, he hasn’t even thrown an interception yet,” followed by him inevitably throwing a pick-six two seconds later. Now it’s in the books, it didn’t really hurt us, we would have lost whether it happened or not, and he’s now aware that he can absolutely survive a turnover or two and still help the Gamecocks win a game.

Red Zone Defense – It’s been a recurring theme all year, and an encouraging one. The Gamecock defense can give up a demoralizing, seemingly backbreaking amount of yards and yet still pull themselves together to make a play and keep the opponent out of the end zone. USC forced two fumbles with the goal line in sight, which went a long way towards keeping the game from slipping into the Humiliation Zone.

Scoring Points of Any Kind – I jumped out of my chair and legitimately pumped my fist a few times when South Carolina finally pushed the ball into the end zone for a fourth-quarter touchdown. By then, the game was essentially already over, but the youngsters on offense needed to come away from the contest knowing they could make something happen against an elite SEC defense. They did, and I nearly sprained my elbow celebrating it.

The First Ever Simultaneous Game Ball/Deflated Ball Award

It’s an exciting day for this column. We’ve never handed out a Simultaneous Game Ball/Deflated Ball before. I’m getting dizzy. Let’s do this!

Hayden Hurst’s Roller Coaster Day – The burly tight end had three catches for 63 yards, giving him the most single-season receptions of any tight end in USC history. On the flip side, he dropped a ball that would have given the Gamecocks a critical first down early in the game, when Carolina still had a chance to stay alive in The Swamp. And as the Gamecocks pushed for a last-minute fourth-quarter touchdown that would have at least given them an opportunity to try an onside kick, Hurst nonchalantly attempted to one-hand a floater from Bentley in the end zone, while the CBS announcers were screaming things like, “You’ve got to lay out for that football in that situation, Hayden Hurst!!!” In many ways, Hurst’s game was a microcosm for this young team’s season: Steps forward followed by steps backward followed by steps forward again. He’s a weapon the Gamecocks can build upon in 2017.

Deflated Balls

If we’d really felt like being ugly about things, we probably could have done an entire Deflated Ball column this week. But we don’t really feel like being ugly about things. So we didn’t. Deflate me, baby!

Me, for Wistfully Watching the Gators on Special Teams and Wondering Why We Never Seem to Have a Terrifying Weapon in the Return Game – The Gamecocks had a whole bunch of opportunities to punt the football during this one, and I felt like pooping my pants just about every single time a Gator player caught a punt and starting weaving through traffic and piling up yards. I’ve watched South Carolina football for thousands of years at this point, and the Gamecocks just never really seem to have one of those punt/kick returners that torment opposing fans and make them think things like, “Just kick it out of bounds, for the love of God. Whatever you do, do NOT kick it near him.” Ace Sanders had a blip of goodness as a punt returner a few years back, but we’ve gone right back to being nonfactors in the return game, with a revolving door of candidates trying to make something happen. Remember when Rashad Fenton returned a kickoff for a touchdown last year at LSU and it seemed downright shocking? That’s what we’re dealing with here.

Ongoing, Never-Ending Offensive Line Struggles – Call it whatever you want: A broken record, the Groundhog Day of Gamecock football, whatever. I’ve said everything I know to say about this team’s offensive line play at this point. Still, South Carolina can’t build a winner in the SEC if they are consistently unable to create even a whisper of a push along the offensive front. USC’s running backs were swarmed the second they touched the ball on Saturday, and when Bentley was given an opportunity to sling it, his pocket typically crumbled in nanoseconds. I’ll just say it: The O-line’s gotta get fixed, somehow, some way. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter all that much who’s playing quarterback or calling the offensive plays for South Carolina. Which leads me to…

Offensive Play-calling That is More Conservative Than the Nixon White House – I can already hear the rumblings out there in Gamecock Nation. More than a few fans are starting to mumble to themselves, “Are they still just trying to protect a young quarterback, or is this really all there is to see from a Kurt Roper-led offense? Will I still be watching a steady barrage of basic runs and quick screens in 2017 and ’18? Do I need to write my Congressman about this or something?” Obviously it’s far, far, FAR too early to even contemplate jumping ship on Roper, and all sane fans know that. We’re 10 games into the Muschamp regime and we’re playing a freshman quarterback who is handing off to freshmen running backs and throwing to freshmen receivers. Muschamp respects Roper deeply and believes in his offensive coach – in fact, you could argue that he’s staked his head-coaching career on the guy. Still, you never want to hear announcers saying things like “South Carolina’s finally starting to move the ball downfield, which makes you wonder why they waited this late to even try building a vertical passing game.” In a perfect world, you don’t catch the game’s opening kickoff and then run three consecutive running plays to essentially announce to the Gator D, “Hey guys, we’re going to try to run today and do it over and over, so don’t even worry about defending the pass.” Hopefully in the very near future, we’ll be playing to win on offense rather than playing to limit mistakes. Hopefully.

These games fly by, don’t they? Ten games are already in the books. How did that happen?

Here’s what we know after 10 games. We know we have players and coaches who do not quit. Not ever.

And we know that come Saturday evening, we might just be bowl-eligible. With this team, at this time, that would feel like winning the Super Bowl to me.

I’m ready to celebrate. So are you.

See you in Williams-Brice.