NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Will Muschamp had no worries about sending Elliott Fry out for the longest field goal of his career. Even though this was the coach’s first game with South Carolina, he had seen the kicker connect repeatedly in clutch situations.
Fry kicked a career-long 55-yard field goal with 35 seconds left, and the South Carolina Gamecocks rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat Vanderbilt 13-10 Thursday night in Muschamp’s debut as head coach.
“I had total confidence,” Muschamp said.
So did senior quarterback Perry Orth.
“I’ve been here the same amount of time as Elliott,” Orth said. “I’ve seen him make those in practice. He’s made a few clutch kicks in games. I knew if we got the ball close to the 35 and in, we’d have a chance.”
Muschamp started Orth at quarterback and also played freshman Brandon McIlwain. But it was Orth who went back into the game in the third quarter and threw for 152 yards rallying the Gamecocks to their eighth straight victory over Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
Vanderbilt now is 0-3 in season openers under coach Derek Mason, though his Commodores did manage to score an offensive touchdown in the first half. But Tommy Openshaw missed a 45-yard field goal wide left with 3:44 left, and Vandy turned it over on downs with 14 seconds left.
“Every decision we made will be questioned,” Mason said. “The bottom line is we didn’t win this game. Now we have to get back to next week and play MTSU.”
Fry also kicked a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter, and Deebo Samuel atoned for a fumbled punt in the first quarter by scoring an 8-yard TD on an end-around with 7:30 left. Fry had total confidence he could connect from 55 after barely coming up short from 62 in warmups.
“I knew I could hit it,” said Fry, whose previous long was 52 yards.
South Carolina: The second half was a complete turnaround from the first with the Gamecocks nearly pinning themselves deep on the opening kickoff before officials ruled the returner had knelt down for the touchback. McIlwain took over at the beginning of the second quarter after Orth managed 23 yards of offense in the first.
Muschamp said the plan coming in had been to get McIlwain into the game early. But McIlwain lost a fumble, so the coach went back to Orth. The senior was 6 of 8 for 117 yards in the second half as the Gamecocks gained 220 yards on offense.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores got their hands on lots of passes defensively but couldn’t pick off even one despite that being an area of focus this season. They forced two fumbles but couldn’t get off the field in the second half.
COOPER’S REPLACEMENT: The Gamecocks might have been wondering who would replace Pharoh Cooper, now with the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL. Freshman Bryan Edwards did his best to step up, pulling in catch after catch. His best was a 43-yarder, and he finished with eight receptions for 101 yards in his first game. “He’s that kind of talent, and he’s going to be huge for us the rest of the season,” Orth said.
South Carolina knew it had questions at quarterback with Muschamp unable to pick between his trio. Mason had said repeatedly before the opener that Kyle Shurmur was his starter with Wade Freebeck the backup. But Vandy brought in Freebeck the drive after the Commodores scored a TD to go up 10-0. Freebeck was in for two consecutive drives and managed 1 yard over six plays. The switch had fans wondering what happened and was reminiscent of quarterback struggles in recent years.
“It was predetermined,” Mason said. “We needed to get Wade a series or two … Kyle needed to find more rhythm. He didn’t have rhythm. We needed to make some plays. We wanted to find momentum.”
South Carolina: The Gamecocks visit Mississippi State, a team they’ve beaten seven straight games, on Sept. 10.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores host Middle Tennessee looking for a second straight victory over a school 40 miles away. MTSU won three straight before Vanderbilt ended that skid a year ago.