No. 21 South Carolina might still not have a pass rush, but the Gamecocks sure had a running game Saturday against East Carolina.
Up by a single touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks consumed 101/2 minutes in 18 plays. That was crucial to a 33-23 victory at Williams-Brice Stadium.
South Carolina (1-1) can’t afford to be in a close game or give the opponent lots of possessions. That was demonstrated in a 52-28 season-opening loss to Texas A&M. The pass-rush is non-existent, with the Gamecocks totaling a single sack in their first two games.
So running tailbacks Mike Davis (101 yards on 18 carries) and Brandon Wilds (14 carries, 49 yards) constantly and effectively was essential.
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“We’re not quite as talented as some of our teams in the past. That’s obvious,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “The fans are realizing what kind of team we are. We’re going to have to fight and scratch.”
That last possession scored just three points on a 20-yard field goal. But it ate up the Pirates’ chance to respond to being down two scores with only 90 seconds left.
The Pirates (1-1) had their chances in this game, leading 6-0 early and trailing by only 20-16 at halftime.
But quarterback Shane Carden was intercepted on back-to-back possessions of the third quarter. The first pick-off, by Sharrod Golightly, was a particularly dubious decision by Carden. He was a couple of steps from the sideline when he threw an off-balance pass that was easily grabbed away.
Then T.J. Gurley jumped in front of a Carden pass, returning it seven yards to give South Carolina possession near midfield.
Aside from those two throws, senior Carden gave South Carolina fits, finishing the game completing 32 of 46 passes for 321 yards and a touchdown. The Pirates finished the game with 27 first downs.
That’s something the Gamecocks might have to live with all season. South Carolina has one sack in 106 opponent passing attempts. The few hurries Carden experienced Saturday were mostly a function of occasional blitzes by defensive backs or linebackers.
“We made him move,” said South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. “He’s a good quarterback and they have two good receivers. But we affected him more than the kid a week ago.”
Ward was referring to Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill, who had more than 500 yards passing in his first collegiate start.
The defensive line’s best moment in this game might have actually been a special-teams play. Rock Hill’s Gerald Dixon Jr. blocked a field-goal attempt that set up possession at midfield and eventually resulted in a South Carolina field goal.
Those field goals were big; placekicker Elliott Fry was 4-for-4 in this game.
Bigger still for the Gamecocks was playing keep-away in the fourth quarter. By game’s end, South Carolina had the ball nearly 37 minutes, to the Pirates’ nearly 24.
“Time of possession was up there almost as good as Texas A&M was last week,” Spurrier said. “We just handed it off (late) and watched the clock run. That was crucial tonight.”
The Gamecocks next host Georgia on Saturday in a potentially huge game in the SEC East.