South Carolina football lost its leading rushing on the first play of this past Saturday’s game, with senior tailback Rico Dowdle leaving with what turned out to be a sprained knee.
Even without Dowdle, the Gamecocks’ ground game pounded for 217 yards, carrying the offense on a day when freshman QB Ryan Hilinski struggled. In Dowdle’s place, senior Tavien Feaster rumbled for 175 yards and a touchdown, while senior Mon Denson stepped in and picked up 58 yards of his own.
“When you have depth at a position like that, as a coach, it makes you feel good to know that you’re going to have quality production and position regardless of who’s in the game, and certainly we have that at that position,” coach Will Muschamp said of his running back room.
And while Dowdle is unlikely to play Saturday’ against Tennessee, the Gamecocks will almost certainly rely on the run game just as much.
Through seven games, USC is averaging 196.9 yards per game on the ground, fourth in the conference and 36th nationally. In Muschamp’s three previous seasons, the Gamecocks never averaged more than 155 yards per game, never ranked better than 12th in the SEC and never cracked the top 90 nationally.
“We’re very confident to put in on the ground, however many times we need to to get the job done. Obviously coach believes in our room, and we go out each week and plan to produce,” Feaster said.
Feaster is new to Carolina, having transferred from Clemson, so he doesn’t know how much things have changed under new position coach Thomas Brown. But he noted that there’s “obviously” been improvement, and Denson confirmed the attitude in the running backs room has changed.
“Coach Brown, he’s hard on us. He wants us to be a physical runner and just run angry, so that’s something we all try to do,” Denson said. “Just focusing on finishing. Getting all the layups. If we break, make sure we finish our runs. Make sure we finish on contact, run through contact. And that’s something he’s big on.”
The Gamecocks’ stats are padded a bit thanks to their 493-yard performance against FCS Charleston Southern. But discounting that game and the unit’s uncharacteristically poor outing against Missouri, they’re still putting up the best numbers of the Muschamp era, and gaining momentum — the past three weeks, Carolina has averaged 202 yards per game.
“We’re just physical every day in practice, we just do plays over and over until we get it right,” junior offensive lineman Sadarius Hutcherson said. “And then that’s what happens on Saturdays and then you find good results.”
That physicality has been the main catalyst for the running game’s emergence, senior offensive lineman Donell Stanley agreed.
“Anytime you do a running scheme, it’s all about mindset, so we have a good mindset running and we usually perform well, you know, we know we got to be physical and that’s where it starts,” Stanley said.
Against Tennessee, South Carolina will be facing an improving defensive front, according to Muschamp, but still one that ranks 11th in the SEC in run defense.
Denson did note, though, the the Volunteers did manage to largely keep Alabama in check on the ground last week, so the matchup will still present a challenge. And as he is set to receive increased reps if Dowdle is out as expected, Denson is eager to showcase why Muschamp is so confident in his running back depth.
“It’s something I practice, it’s something coach harps on, making sure we’re ready when our number is called, so that’s what I was expecting, whenever somebody goes down, I just know I got to step in and take over,” Denson said.
“Mon’s a great player. He’s getting a little bit more opportunity coming up, so he’s gonna show you what he’s got,” Feaster said.
Who: South Carolina vs. Tennessee
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee
TV: SEC Network
Line: USC by 4