COLUMBIA – Stunning doesn’t begin to describe this.
Less than halfway through Thursday night’s season opener at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Southeastern Conference East favorites were getting booed by their home fans, the post-Johnny Manziel Texas A&M offense had run off 53 plays for 393 yards and the Aggies led 31-14 against a defense-less South Carolina.
Steve Spurrier's immediate assessment was just as harsh as the Gamecocks crowd.
“They’re kicking our butts,” the head ball coach said at halftime. “They’re out-blocking, out-tackling, out-coaching us. They know what they’re doing. We’re getting beat by a much better team right now. I don’t know how we can change it, but we’ll try something different.”
Different didn’t work either. With 20 minutes still left, the Aggies had 45 points, 501 yards and a 24-point lead. When it was all said and done, the Aggies “hung 50” on Spurrier’s team in his house (52-28) and the Gamecocks hung their heads in shame.
“It was obvious the oddsmakers didn’t know what they were talking about,” Spurrier said. “That team was so much better than us it wasn’t funny. ... We’ll regroup and come back and try to fight again against East Carolina in nine days and see if we can look like we know what we’re doing.”
Before you could say goodbye to August, a season that tingled with championship aspirations fell immediately into the desperation category. The Gamecocks could very well be playing for their SEC East lives in two weeks against Georgia or face the prospects of having to run the conference table against the likes of Auburn, Missouri and Florida just to have an outside chance of staying in the division race.
The team that played Saturday didn’t look capable of running any tables.
“It was a mismatch – coaches and players – tonight,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know what else you can say. If we played them again they’d be a three-touchdown favorite.”
This was not how the opener was supposed to go in a stadium where the home team hasn’t lost in 18 games dating back to 2011.
The Aggies defense which ranked among the nation’s worst a year ago was expected to be the one that struggled to tackle or cover. The A&M offense wasn’t anticipated to be as lethal without Manziel running and gunning all over the place. The Gamecocks rushing attack was supposed to be imposing and not impotent.
But right from the opening drive the Aggies were the Kenny Hill Show – and as you watched sophomore quarterback pick apart the open spaces in the Gamecocks defense it was impossible not to hear the Benny Hill theme song running through your head as if everything was in fast-motion except the Gamecocks defense. Hill surpassed Manziel’s single-game passing yardage record with 511 yards in his first career start. He surpassed the most ever yielded by the Gamecocks (485 by Georgia’s Eric Zeier in 1994).
Gamecocks’ semi-veteran Dylan Thompson threw four touchdown passes in the first three quarters and had a chance to alter the momentum trailing 45-28 with third-and-1 and the ball at midfield after a rare defensive stop. But Thompson threw a jump ball deep that Texas A&M’s Armani Watts intercepted to kill that brief spark of hope.
Somewhere in Cleveland, you could envision Browns rookie teammates Manziel and Connor Shaw watching the SEC Network premiere and wagering which one of them would be missed more. Manziel would have been paying off by halftime.
Better yet, they should both mail checks to Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney because it was defense that killed the Gamecocks.
“We don’t have a pass rusher right now, I guess,” Spurrier said.
In three consecutive 11-win seasons, South Carolina’s defense only allowed one team (Georgia in 2013) to gain more than 23 first downs in a game. A&M had 23 in the first half Saturday.
All told, Texas A&M ran 99 plays, gained 680 yards and 39 first downs.
It could have been worse. The Aggies ran out the last 10:05 with a 17-play drive that ended when the clock ran out with first-and-goal at the 3.
“I thought we would play a lot better,” Spurrier said. “I’ve been reading like you guys have about our new 3-4 defense. Did everybody like that 3-4 defense? I don’t know if it would have mattered if we played a 6-6 defense. We’ve got some coaching decisions to make to see if we can’t find a pass rush somehow.”
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward didn’t think scheme was the problem, but it would be shocking to see Spurrier willing to stand pat with East Carolina and Georgia on the horizon.
But the bigger job will be mentally getting the Gamecocks turned around and focused on forgetting Thursday and moving forward with the tone of the season hanging in the balance.
“We won’t get much favorable press and that’s probably going to be good for us,” Spurrier said. “We don’t have to worry about any more win streaks. It was a good one while it lasted. We can go back to trying to be a decent team and not read the paper too much, hopefully.”
They don’t ever want to read about this. For the fallen favorites, it will be hard enough just living with it.