COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina has been one of the Southeastern Conference’s biggest surprises this fall heading into its bye week. Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp believes his players will keep working hard during the time off to continue surprising people when they get back on the field.
Muschamp said he’ll give his banged-up players like offensive line starters Zack Bailey, Cory Helms and Malik Young time to heal from their injuries. He expects the rest of the Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) to keep grinding to improve for the stretch run, which starts at home against Vanderbilt on Oct. 28.
“It’s about working on South Carolina,” Muschamp said . “It’s not about working on any opponents right now. We have plenty of time next week to get ready for Vanderbilt. We need to work on South Carolina on Wednesday and Thursday. The guys who are nicked up, we will be smart with them in practice, but we need to continue to progress and improve.”
Few were quite sure what direction the Gamecocks were headed at times this season. They opened by defeating North Carolina State, which has won its six games since and is tied for No. 16 in this week’s Top 25. Then came SEC losses at home to Kentucky and on the road to Texas A&M to end September as South Carolina’s offense struggled to move the ball and score points.
That’s when South Carolina’s defense stepped up for this latest surge. The Gamecocks had a school-record three defensive touchdowns in a 48-22 rout of Arkansas two weeks ago, then followed that up by limiting Tennessee to nine points and keeping the Vols out of the end zone with a last-second goal line stand to preserve the 15-9 victory .
“Anytime you get a win, especially like that, it takes the weight off of your shoulders and then you feel a lot more confident,” South Carolina receiver Bryan Edwards said. “We can go into the open week with a good feeling and get a good week of practice in and come out next week ready to play.”
And perhaps with more to play for.
South Carolina’s final two conference games after Vanderbilt are at Georgia and Florida at home. With a strong finish, the Gamecocks could certainly have something to say about the SEC Eastern Division and who heads to Atlanta for the title game.
The Gamecocks haven’t had a winning SEC record since going 6-2 in 2013, the last of three straight 11-2 overall seasons under Steve Spurrier. Muschamp has had just one winning league season in five previous years as an SEC head coach, going 7-1 with Florida in 2012.
Muschamp said he and his team won’t worry about anything beyond the here and now.
“I think every week is a season and our guys understand that part,” Muschamp said.
South Carolina has hung together despite several key injuries. Receiver Deebo Samuel was lost for an extended period after a left leg fracture in mid-September in the Kentucky loss. Senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams went down with a shoulder injury and will not play again this fall. And just last week, starting tailback Rico Dowdle fractured a bone in his left leg. He’ll need surgery and be out for several games.
Muschamp will use to the open week to get his younger guys not in the regular rotation some extra, intense practice time. When the Gamecocks take the practice field this week, the offense will focus on executing especially on third downs. The Gamecocks are ninth in the SEC in third-down conversions at 38 percent this season, a number Muschamp would like to see go up.
“I really think that our guys will handle things well as far as the open week and heading into the final five games of the season,” he said.
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