COLUMBIA, S.C. — In its toughest challenge of the 2016 season to date, South Carolina headed into a meeting against No. 9 Texas A&M without many of its top receiving options. Wide receivers Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards and Randrecous Davis were all ruled out prior to kickoff, but the Aggies also showed up short handed.
“As a defensive coordinator, you want to look at the field and say, ‘who threatens me right now?'” Muschamp said of Samuel and Edwards after the game. “Those two guys are the two guys you have to account for as a playcaller, so it changes how the game is called. It changes a lot of things. It changes the explosive ability on a bubble for a missed tackle and to take it the distance. There are a lot of things they bring to the table.”
Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett missed the contest with a left leg injury, and the Aggies also felt the absence of wide receivers Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil. Luckily for head coach Kevin Sumlin’s team, they would not need contributions from the two dynamic pass catchers on Saturday as the Aggies secured a 24-13 win in enemy territory.
Wasting no time in this battle of SEC foes, South Carolina running back A.J. Turner raced off to a quick score for the Gamecocks when he took the first snap from scrimmage 75 yards for a touchdown in the game’s first 13 seconds. After that, South Carolina was held scoreless until 3:14 remained in the 3rd quarter.
The Aggies, led by quarterback Trevor Knight, shot back with a 75-yard drive of their own spanning seven plays and resulting in a Knight four-yard touchdown run. This knotted the game at seven, which is where the score would remain for nearly 30 minutes.
During the first half, Texas A&M relied on a steady dose of Christian Kirk to fill in for both Noil and Seals-Jones. Kirk snagged nine passes in the first half but was relatively contained, posting only 38 yards on his nearly double-digit receptions. Kirk, who was able to break free from the Gamecocks’ coverage seemingly at will, saw most of his action in the flats, so the South Carolina defense keyed in on a predictable pattern of offense from Knight. As a result, the Aggies struggled to move the football consistently and were forced to settle for two punts, a fumble, missed field goal and turnover on downs through two quarters.
South Carolina also had to adapt its gameplan to account for the absences of Edwards, Samuel and Davis, which forced the home team to employ the zone read in full force, a strategy that saw mixed results.
Once Texas A&M took the lead in the 3rd quarter, though, the Aggies performed like a top-10 team that knows how to play with the lead. The Knight-led offense held the ball for much longer in the second half and sustained two key scoring drives to put South Carolina away in front of a hostile home crowd that kept on cheering.
As the game went on, true freshman Brandon McIlwain seemed to find his groove and shook off any negative ramifications from an early interception, ending the night with a 9-for-15 ledger and another middle of the road showing at home that is fitting for a true freshman.
In fact, McIlwain was pulled from the game during the 4th quarter in favor of senior Perry Orth, who began the season as the Gamecocks’ starter before losing his job to the freshman in week three. During his late stint in the game, Orth outgained McIlwain through the air by an 11-for-18 clip with 138 yards and appeared to provide much needed touch through the air in his relief duty.
Perhaps remaining cognizant of its offensive limitations, South Carolina aimed to hold its opponent under 20 points on Saturday, which it failed to do. The Gamecocks were unable to register more than one touchdown in the lopsided matchup, and the combination of Orth and McIlwain, while remaining relatively safe with the football, could not mount a late charge to test the Texas A&M defense that was without its decidedly top player in Garrett.
Not that the quarterback tandem was without opportunities, however. South Carolina fumbled a punt return down eight points with just over three minutes remaining. In fitting fashion, Texas A&M recovered the fumble deep in Gamecocks’ territory and shut the door on a potential comeback with a field goal that provided the Aggies with a 11-point victory.