South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp isn’t known as much of a gambler. But against No. 2 Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, the Gamecocks went all in for the upset.
It just wasn’t enough in a 47-23 USC loss that was widely expected but competitive early before the Crimson Tide imposed their will.
Going up against ‘Bama coach Nick Saban, his former boss, Muschamp made aggressive play calls, clearly hoping to gain whatever advantage he could in a game where South Carolina (1-2) was the 26-point underdog.
“I felt like we need to steal some possessions in the game, stay on the field offensively more, because of their offense,” Muschamp said. “It’s a totally different animal what you’re trying to face. We get in the red zone, we need to score touchdowns. So yeah, it was a different mindset than maybe we’ve had other weeks, but it’s not the same every week because what do you need to do to win the game?”
Muschamp’s first gambit came in the first quarter, with the Gamecocks trailing 7-3 and facing fourth down at Alabama’s 33-yard line. Rather than have junior kicker Parker White try for a career-long 50-yard field goal, Muschamp called a fake, and White seemed to be sprung free along the sideline, scampering for a touchdown.
But the play came back on a holding penalty against tight end Kyle Markway. Muschamp hinted at his displeasure with the flag, saying “all 11” players on the play had “outstanding execution,” while senior running back Rico Dowdle outright said he thought there was no holding on the play.
Muschamp’s other gambles also went bust — a fake punt, a surprise onside kick and a decision to go for it on fourth down at Alabama’s one-yard line at the end of the first half all wound up not working. But in Muschamp and his players’ minds, there was simply no other way to go about it.
“Anytime you play a team like Alabama, you’re going to have to be aggressive,” senior wide receiver Bryan Edwards said. “And when you see the teams that beat them in the past, they’ve been aggressive, they take shots down the field, and they get explosive plays. That’s just what it is.”
That fourth down play at the end of the second quarter proved especially costly — down 24-10 and set to get the ball back to start the second half, South Carolina appeared to have a touchdown on first and goal off a Dowdle run. He was ruled down at the one-yard line, though, and with no review called to look it over, freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski tried to pass his way in, missing three consecutive attempts.
“When you get in the red zone against that team, you gotta score touchdowns,” Muschamp said. “In retrospect, looking back, you kick the field goal and you go down 11, you get the ball start the second half, but you know, at the end of the day, I felt like we needed touchdowns.”
South Carolina finished the day with one touchdown in three red zone trips, with that score coming late in the fourth quarter after the outcome was settled.
Hilinski did flash some upside against a vaunted defense, completing 36 of 57 passes for 324 yards, highlighted by a 31-yard touchdown in the first quarter to junior receiver Shi Smith against double coverage.
But despite Hilinski’s poise and toughness, the Gamecocks were simply no match for Alabama’s attack, led by Heisman Trophy candidate QB Tua Tagovailoa, who finished the night with 28-of-36 passing for 444 yards and five touchdowns.
Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide tore apart USC’s defense with chunk plays and steadily pulled away, scoring at least 10 points in every quarter to cruise to victory.
Star of the game: Tua Tagovailoa shattered records last year at Alabama, but he surpassed even that high bar Saturday with a career best in passing yards, in addition to tying his career high in touchdown passes.
Play of the game: On fourth down in the second quarter, Alabama running back Najee Harris caught a short pass and proceeded to break two tackles and hurdle another for a 42-yard touchdown. It was emblematic of South Carolina’s tackling issues all game, as well as Alabama’s superior playmaking ability.
Stat of the game: 15 chunk plays — defined as 15 or more yards passing, 10 or more rushing — for Alabama, 11 of which came through the air.
Who: South Carolina at Missouri
When: 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 21
Where: Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Missouri
TV: SEC Network
Greg Hadley: @GregHadley9
BAMA—N.Harris 24 pass from Tu.Tagovailoa (Reichard kick), 13:21
SC—FG White 44, 8:31
BAMA—Ruggs 81 pass from Tu.Tagovailoa (Reichard kick), 3:15
SC—S.Smith 31 pass from Hilinski (White kick), 1:49
BAMA—FG Reichard 23, 13:10
BAMA—N.Harris 42 pass from Tu.Tagovailoa (Reichard kick), 7:40
SC—FG White 28, 11:26
BAMA—D.Smith 42 pass from Tu.Tagovailoa (Reichard kick), 9:52
BAMA—FG Reichard 21, :52
SC—FG White 48, 14:49
BAMA—D.Smith 11 pass from Tu.Tagovailoa (kick failed), 13:41
BAMA—M.Jones 1 run (Reichard kick), 2:04
SC—Markway 11 pass from Hilinski (White kick), :11
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Alabama, N.Harris 7-36, B.Robinson 8-33, K.Robinson 4-12, Waddle 1-5, Bolden 1-2, M.Jones 1-1, (Team) 1-(minus 1), Tu.Tagovailoa 2-(minus 12). South Carolina, Dowdle 12-102, Feaster 10-33, White 1-3, S.Smith 1-2, Hilinski 5-(minus 5).
PASSING—Alabama, Tu.Tagovailoa 28-36-0-444, M.Jones 3-3-0-51. South Carolina, Hilinski 36-57-1-324.
RECEIVING—Alabama, D.Smith 8-136, Ruggs 6-122, Jeudy 6-68, N.Harris 5-87, B.Robinson 2-37, Bolden 1-14, Tennison 1-12, Waddle 1-12, Forristall 1-7. South Carolina, Edwards 9-79, S.Smith 6-90, Markway 5-46, Vann 4-23, Muse 4-21, Dowdle 3-21, Feaster 2-17, O.Smith 2-14, Joyner 1-13.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Alabama, Reichard 37.