CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Thirteen seconds.
That’s all it took for South Carolina to take its first lead of the 2017 season, courtesy of a Deebo Samuel 97-yard kickoff return on the opening play of the game Saturday. While the North Carolina State Wolfpack would tie the game three times, they never were able to take the lead.
Samuel added two offensive touchdowns, including a stunning one-handed grab of a 39-yard pass from Jake Bentley that gave the Gamecocks the lead for good three minutes into the second half, and South Carolina opened the season with a 35-28 win.
Samuel’s kickoff return was not an accident. Special teams coach Coleman Hutzler had put a return left in specifically because of what they’d seen from NC State on tape.
“It wasn’t a surprise. A lot of guys called that on the sidelines before it happened,” linebacker Skai Moore said.
Samuel isn’t going to be a surprise to any defensive coordinators this season, but his quarterback isn’t worried about that.
“I don’t think anyone in the country can guard (Samuel),” Jake Bentley said.
Here are four takeaways from South Carolina’s season-opening win.
1. Skai Moore looks good
The buzz: Moore missed last season because of a neck injury, but the fifth-year senior showed no signs of rust in his return to the field. His eight tackles were tied for second on the day, and he said he felt comfortable almost immediately. “Just running down on kickoff,” he said. “I didn’t even hit anybody, but just with live action I knew I was back.”
2. The new line coach led to improved results
The buzz: Eric Wolford is the one new member of Will Muschamp’s staff, and his offensive line was dealing with a significant challenge. The Wolfpack features a front seven that Will Muschamp called “as good as we’ll see the whole year.” To only allow two sacks was a strong showing from a group that yielded 41 last season. Zack Bailey made his debut at right tackle, moving out from left guard as part of Wolford’s restructuring of the line. He says the difference between last season and this season with Wolford was about communication. “He coaches us hard,” Bailey said. “He gets his yelling in during the week, but when it’s game day it’s game day. Things happen, but you just have to correct them on the field.”
3. Rico Dowdle’s still the lead dog
The buzz: One of the questions going into the game was how the running back duties would be split up. Dowdle finished last season as lead back after A.J .Turner had been a key performer early in the season. Ty’Son Williams sat out last season after transferring in from North Carolina and is expected to play as well. It was a fairly quiet day for the backs, with South Carolina opting to attack the Wolfpack’s perceived vulnerability in the secondary rather than challenge the front seven too often. Of the Gamecocks’ 13 carries, Dowdle got 12, including one for the touchdown that provided the margin of victory. He added two catches for 51 yards and a score as well. Both Turner and Williams saw the field, but it’s hard to view this as even a two-headed tailback position right now.
4. On to Mizzou
The buzz: Facing NC State may prove to have been good preparation for Missouri, as the Wolfpack ran 99 plays on their way to 504 yards. South Carolina saw reverses, a triple-option look and a grab bag of other ways to move the chains. No NCSU scoring drive was under nine plays, as the Gamecocks forced them to grind out drives. Mizzou is expected to be a force on offense, and nothing in its 815-yard opening-day performance against Missouri State would lead one to think otherwise. For a defense that had its moments of frustration in trying to get off the field against the Wolfpack, the payoff may come next week thanks to the experience gained.
(You can follow Heath Cline on Twitter @heathradio)
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