A Win is a Win, but this was Ugly
The best takeaway from the win against UNC in Charlotte is that John Hoke seems to have the defense playing at a much higher level than they were last year. Holding a 2014 Top 25 offensive team with 10 returning starters to only 14 points is good showing on defensive, and even more so given the historically bad performance we saw in '14. Apart from the 3 interceptions, the biggest number that stood out was 4 sacks, which is 29% of last year's total. Considering that the UNC O-line features an All-American and is one of the best we'll likely face all season, getting 4 sacks is incredibly encouraging. After a shaky start that featured a lot of poor tackling, the defense settled down and didn't allow a single point in the 2nd Half. Isaiah Johnson in particular showed a lot of improvement as the game went on, and had a great hit resulting in a pass break-up on 3rd and 15 in the 3rd Quarter. UNC ran a lot of HUNH during the game, and Joe Connolly seems to have done a great job during the off season, as there was almost no substitution in the back seven during the game. I'm not going to make any bold proclamations after only one game, but it appears that the defense may no longer be a liability.
The offense was an entirely different story. After getting off to an inauspicious start with a delay of game penalty prior to the first snap, Connor Mitch was incomplete on his first 5 attempts. I don't think anybody expected Mitch to come out and throw for 300 yards and multiple TDs in his first significant action, but what we saw in the 1st Quarter was definitely flirting with worst case territory. Keep in mind that there were several drops throughout the game, but even if those were completed Mitch's stat line would still have been fairly pedestrian. He got better as the game went on and I think he surprised everyone with his athleticism running the zone read (44 yards on 10 carries). Considering the 3 picks thrown by his counterpart, Mitch was easily the best QB on the field in Week 1. He also showed some toughness, struggling with cramps in his leg and thumb, and then coming back after suffering a hip pointer in the 2nd Half. I expect Mitch to show some improvement in Week 2 as the Gamecocks play in Williams-Brice for the home opener.
In my opinion the WRs were the most disappointing unit in the first game. They struggled to get open all game against one of the worst secondaries they're likely to face this year. Next to the QB position, WRs are the least experienced group on the team, so expectations need to be adjusted accordingly, but someone needs to step up and take some some of the burden off of Pharoh Cooper. Terry Googer made the most of his opportunities before leaving with an injury, and Carlton Heard and a great block on Shon Carson's long TD run, but as a whole this group really lacks playmakers at the moment. Look for true Freshman Dexter Neal and Jalen Christian to get some opportunities in the near future.
O-line was the lone bright spot on offense. The UNC D-line is probably one of the worst we'll face this year, but with 254 yards rushing and only 1 sack given up, the battle on the line of scrimmage was definitively won by South Carolina. There are concerns with depth given the recent injury to Cody Waldrop, but if the starting five stay healthy the rushing attack should be fairly potent and Mitch will be given the opportunity to improve.
Teriyaki Chicken Wings
After every win I'm going to hand out a dozen teriyaki chicken wings to the players with the biggest contributions. Here are the recipients for the first win:
Skai Moore - 3 Wings
Led the team in tackles with 10 (4 solo) and had 2 massive interceptions in the end zone, the final one basically turning a loss into a win. Sometimes I think Matt Rolin decommitting in the Fall of 2012 was one of the best things that has happened to this program this decade. Without Skai Moore we don't win this game.
Shon Carson - 2 Wings
His 48 yard TD run early in the 4th was the most explosive offensive play of the game and was his first touch of the day.
Kelsey Griffin - 2 Wings
Had 1.5 sacks in only 12 snaps as the 3rd guy off the bench at the 3-technique.
Sean Kelly - 2 Wings
Had a 46.2 yard punting average and a long of 60, which is the best punting performance we have seen in quite a while. Also audibled the fake punt in the 1st quarter and then successfully converted, giving a bit of a spark to a struggling offense. Finished up his stellar special teams performance by making the tackle on missed field goal at the end of the 1st half, likely preventing a return for a TD by Switzer.
Jordan Diggs - 1 Wing
You get a pick, you get a wing. His pick ended a promising drive for UNC (4 plays for 59 yards) as they were headed into the red zone. Diggs recognized the play from earlier in the game, faked as if he was covering the slant route, and then jumped in front of the pass in the flat.
Brandon Wilds - 1 Wing
2nd on the team in both rushing and receiving yards, with 95 yards total offense. His runs for first downs in the final series allowed USC to end the game from the victory formation.
Pharoh Cooper - 1 Wing
Cooper gets a wing for scoring the first TD of the year on Mitch's first completion past the line of scrimmage.
That's all I've got for the first game. It was great to get the win, no matter how ugly, but the Gamecocks will need to get better fast as they begin SEC play.
Watch the full UNC game here: