Gamecocks Exceed Expectations in 2021
South Carolina fans entered the 2021 season with an almost unfamiliar optimism after the failed Will Muschamp era that saw the Gamecocks show consistency. Just not the type of consistency you want to see from a rebuilding program..
Plagues of injuries, 4 different quarterback experiments that all failed (Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia, Jake Bentley, and Colin Hill), 3 different offensive coordinators/systems (Kurt Roper, Bryan McClendon, and Mike Bobo), 5 straight losses to Clemson (6 in a row dating back to Shawn Elliott’s loss in interim in 2015), only 1 win over Kentucky in 7 years, consistently ranking middle of the pack in the SEC (back of the pack in the East) in recruiting, 1 big win (2019 upset of UGA), a 1-2 bowl record that included an embarrassing shutout loss to Virginia in the 2018 Belk Bowl, and a dismal 6 wins in the last 2 seasons combined.
Needless to say, it has become ingrained into South Carolina fans’ nature to expect the worst and be pessimistic over the last 6 years. But, with the firing of Muschamp, South Carolina fans immediately started jumping on the “Shane Train”. December 6th, 2020, Shane Beamer was hired as Muschamp’s replacement, and the fanbase had an air of optimism about them that they had not really felt since after the 2013 season. Beamer certainly had his work cut out for him, but regardless of how the offseason went, and regardless of how the season went, which was already being met with very low expectations, Will Muschamp was gone and the Gamecocks had a young coach that wanted to be there. The enthusiasm was there and it was going to take a total disaster to curb it and kill the high.
Fast forward to August.. Gamecock fans got their first dose of unsurprising bad news. Luke Doty, who was to be Carolina’s QB1, injured his foot, suffering what they were calling a “midfoot sprain”. With the bare cupboard in the QB room, this left Beamer to have to make some drastic moves. The only other option he had at the time was Jason Brown, a transfer from St. Francis University. Luckily for Shane, Zeb Noland, a grad assistant that had played previously at North Dakota State, still had a year of eligibility. Ultimately, Noland won the starting job for the season opener against FCS Eastern Illinois, although over the course of the season, all 3 quarterbacks would end up getting a couple of starts.
The Shane Beamer era at South Carolina got off to an explosive start, as the Gamecocks dealt Eastern Illinois a 46-0 shutout for Beamer’s first career win as a head coach. The dominant performance was something that Carolina hadn’t consistently been able to do against FCS opponents, and definitely helped to fuel further enthusiasm for the potential under Beamer.
Beamer quickly would face his first test of adversity in week 2. The Gamecocks traveled to East Carolina and they struggled mightily. They turned the ball over 3 times in their first 5 possessions of the game and trailed by 2 TDs late in the 2nd quarter before finally catching a game-swinging break when Damani Staley got a 63 yard pick 6. The Gamecocks chipped their way back in and picked up a couple of big stops on defense to set it up for Parker White to nail a 36 yard fieldgoal as time expired to escape with a 20-17 win.
After the 2-0 start, the rollercoaster flipped and went downhill quickly. South Carolina started their SEC schedule with UGA on the road. UGA’s defense had held opponents to just 10 points in 2 games, including holding Clemson to just a fieldgoal. Luke Doty returned for his first start of the season, and had a very lackluster performance, going 13-26 with 153 yards with a TD and a pick in the 40-13 rout. The highlight of the game is the fact that South Carolina managed to score a TD on that UGA defense. The Gamecocks offense still struggled against Kentucky at home the next week, mustering only 12 first downs, rushing for just 58 yards, and only 216 yards of total offense in a disappointing 16-10 loss.
Carolina got back on the wagon against Troy, but not in the fashion you would think. South Carolina’s offensive woes continued, particularly in the ground game, with just over 100 yards and no rushing TDs. Luke Doty put together his best start of the season, with 255 yards on 20 completions in 34 attempts. Parker White ended up leading the offense in scoring, making all 3 field goals he attempted. The defense forced 3 turnovers and logged their 3rd TD of the season on a 74 yard David Spaulding pick 6, as the Gamecocks went on to win 23-14.
The up and down season continued as the Gamecocks were absolutely shell shocked on the road in Knoxville, trailing 35-0 before they finally broke onto the scoreboard with 1 of 2 short rushing TDs they were able to muster out of Kevin Harris, en route to a 45-20 loss to Tennessee. Not to worry though, right? Vanderbilt is next! Ah who am I kidding? Seems to be almost a sure thing that South Carolina will always play down to Vanderbilt. Luke Doty went 17 of 27 for 242 yards and 2 TDs with 2 more interceptions and would ultimately have to come out of the game on the final drive as he re-aggravated his foot injury from before the season started, which would ultimately lead to a season-ending surgery for him. Zeb Noland was called on to try and be the hero on the final drive with the Gamecocks trailing 20-14. Vanderbilt, who had been bringing good pressure all game long, went into prevent defense (which in my experience only prevents you from winning..), and Noland was able to dink n dunk down the field 75 yards for a 9 yard go-ahead TD pass to Xavier Legette. Carolina would go on to win 21-20.
I’m just going to skip over the loss (there are no words in the English language to describe just how ugly it was) to Texas A&M.. When you have 11 yards of total offense in 1 half, you are not in for a fun time..
Over the final month of the regular season, the Gamecocks picked up their 2 biggest wins of the season. Florida came into Williams-Brice Stadium a heavy 3 TD favorite. But, if you bet on Florida in that one, you probably lost a lot of money. To be fair to the Gators, but at the same time not discredit the Gamecocks any, this Florida team was beginning to quit on Dan Mullen. They had gotten pulverized by Georgia 34-7 the week before, and they were just not living up to expectations, floundering around at .500. South Carolina on the other hand, played their most complete game of the season on offense.
Jason Brown got the nod as QB1, as Zeb Noland had to undergo knee surgery after an injury suffered at A&M. Brown threw for 2 TDs, but more positive for the Gamecocks going forward was that they actually managed to establish a rushing attack while the Carolina defense was actually able to contain Florida’s ground game. Kevin Harris and Zaquandre White both rushed for over 100 yards, and the defense limited Florida to just 82 yards on the ground as USC went on to rout the Gators 40-17.
Skipping past the disappointing loss to Missouri the following week, the Gamecocks once again managed to check a huge box for Shane Beamer’s first season at the helm by getting to bowl eligibility and by pulling off a 2nd upset on the season. The Auburn Tigers came to Columbia for the 2nd consecutive season looking to avenge the 30-22 loss the Gamecocks dealt them in October 2020. The Gamecocks had a strong chance with the news that Bo Nix would be out for the remainder of the season with a broken ankle. Instead, TJ Finley, who absolutely dominated the Gamecocks in his first start in 2020 at LSU, would get the nod for Bryan Harsin’s Tigers.
Things did not get off to a strong start for South Carolina, as the Gamecocks’ defense struggled to get off the field on 3rd down. Auburn ran the ball with great success using former Gamecock running back recruiting target Tank Bigsby, who had 22 carries for 164 yards and a TD. The Tigers scored on 2 of their first 3 drives, leading 14-0 midway through the 2nd quarter. The Gamecocks managed to break onto the scoreboard with a 10 play 67 yard drive capped by a 28 yard TD pass from Brown to an uncovered Zaquandre White on a 4th down. Auburn had a chance to respond, but when faced with a 4th and 1 from their own 35. With a literal Tank for a running back, you’d think the playcall would be a no-brainer. But, rather than run it, they passed the ball and ended up turning it over on downs. The Gamecocks answered with a quick 35 yard drive to tie it with a 1 yard pass from Brown to Trai Jones.
The Gamecocks would have to fight their way back in as Auburn took a 17-14 lead with 8:40 to play in the 3rd. They answered perfectly as Brown and the USC offense went 67 yards on 6 plays, scoring on a 7 yard TD pass to Josh Vann to go up 21-17. From there, the Gamecocks held on, maybe with the help of a controversial call late in the game on a punt that was ruled a live ball that grazed an Auburn player and was recovered by Carolina.
Now that the Gamecocks achieved bowl eligibility, it was time for rivalry week. The last 7 years (8 if you count not playing last year), have been lackadaisical when it comes to the rivalry. There hasn’t been much to cheer about for Carolina fans and for Clemson fans, it was just another cupcake on the road to the playoff or a practice for the ACC championship. There has not been much excitement or intensity around “The Palmetto Bowl”. That was not the case this year. Clemson was down (if you really consider 9 wins a down year, you have what we like to call “caviar problems”). Their offense was horrid all season and they squeaked by with their defense. The Gamecocks actually had a legitimate shot. Or so it felt. In the end, Clemson picked up their 7th consecutive win in the series and shut South Carolina out (not a bad way to go out for Brent Venables. Give him some credit) for the first time in 31 years. Pain……
But, it is not all over for the Gamecocks. Because they finished 6-6 and are going bowling. Sure, it is the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Sure it is in Charlotte, which we aren’t fond of. Sure, it is at 11:00 am on a Thursday. Sure, it is against a North Carolina team we feel we don’t match up well against and will see a lot over the next few years in that same stadium. But, can South Carolina fans really be too upset to be 6-6 with a chance for a 7th win and an extra month of practice in Shane Beamer’s first season when most expected that they’d be lucky to win 3-5 games? To do what Shane did with a team that won 6 games the last 2 seasons combined with basically no established QB or run game most of the season is incredible, and he deserves every bit of the enthusiasm and support he is being given right now. That’s almost a coach of the year performance.
Here is to hoping for building on the success of this season in 2022. The future definitely looks bright for Gamecock football right now.