Hill-led Aggies hang 52 on No. 9 Gamecocks in SEC opener
AUG 28, 2014 10:37p ET
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- So, how do you prefer your prolific scoring in the newfangled SEC -- methodically prodigious or deriving from a constant array of go-for-broke passes ... when seemingly all hope is lost?
Whatever the answer, SEC fans were treated to one of the most explosive conference openers in recent memory on Thursday, with No. 21 Texas A&M delivering a stunning 52-28 road victory over No. 9 South Carolina in the first-ever meeting between the league members.
"We got clobbered," said South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, owning up to his brutally honest reputation as a postgame orator. He later added: "It was a mismatch -- their talent against our talent, their coaching against our coaching."
Characterizing the action, we're reluctant to use the word "upset" here, even with the somewhat shocking result.
After all, South Carolina no longer has defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (arguably the most heralded recruit/performer in school history) or Connor Shaw (the most decorated QB in program history); and the up-tempo Aggies are clearly capable of posting monster yardage and points without the services of wonderboy QB Johnny Manziel -- the 2012 Heisman winner and a primary attraction, alumni donations-wise, behind the massive expansion of Kyle Field in College Station, Texas (speculated stadium capacity: 109,000).
Take the case of quarterback Kenny Hill, who absurdly passed for 299 yards and two TDs in the first half ... and 511 yards (an A&M single-game record -- topping you-know-who) and three scores altogether.
The sophomore passer, who wasn't even a lock to start the season over heralded freshman Kyle Allen, completed 27 of 35 first-half passes against the generous Gamecocks ... although it's hard to recall more than three incompletions during that 30-minute exhibition of vertical and horizontal excellence.
"We were ready to prove everyone wrong," Hill said. "We were ready to show we could play without Johnny."
He also noted he isn't crazy about his new nickname.
"I don't really like 'Kenny Football,'" Hill said.
His stellar performance wasn't lost on the opposing coach.
"Hill was very good," said Spurrier, with a hint of understatement. He then acknowledged how the Aggies came close to realizing their pregame goal of 100 offensive plays -- falling one short.
"They know what they're doing -- give 'em credit," said Spurrier. "When you pass-block like that, letting their quarterback get the ball out quickly, you've got a chance" to succeed.
Check this out: For all five of Texas A&M's scoring drives in the first half (including a Josh Lambo field goal from 33 yards), the Aggies patiently waded through a minimum of eight plays per drive, or an eye-popping average of 9.8 plays per. In that stretch, the Aggies also accrued 31 first downs and 393 total yards, cruising to a 31-14 halftime lead.
Think about that for a second. In 2013, South Carolina's defense ranked fifth in the SEC overall, surrendering just 350 yards per game. And in passing yards allowed and offensive plays allowed, the Gamecocks ranked fourth and sixth, respectively.
"We didn't have a chance to disguise too (many defensive coverages)," lamented Spurrier, before adding, "it seems like they had guys open all over the place.
"We've got to find a way to rush the passer."
Officially, Hill connected with 12 different receivers on this night. But the lion's share of production came from five sources: Malcome Kennedy (14 catches, 137 yards), Josh Reynolds (six catches, 76 yards, one TD), Edward Pope (four catches, 75 yards, one TD), Speedy Noil (five catches) and Ricky Seals-Jones (five catches, 67 yards, one TD); Seals-Jones' 3-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter might have been the first time South Carolina fans, coaches and players came to grips with the disparities in talent and execution.
"If we played (A&M) again," Spurrier quipped, "we'd probably be three-touchdown underdogs."
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South Carolina's offense didn't register much on the "methodical" level, solely benefiting from two long touchdown receptions in the first half (Nick Jones for 69 yards and Damiere Byrd for 46 yards). The Gamecocks then duplicated the spurt of multiple touchdowns in the second half ... but only after the Aggies had crafted a 45-14 lead.
"Our job, as an offense, is to execute and get the job done ... and we just didn't do that tonight," said Gamecocks QB Dylan Thompson, (366 yards passing, four TDs, one INT), who found receiver Nick Jones five times for 113 yards and two scores.
The Byrd first-half score, in particular, rocked Williams-Brice Stadium to its most raucous pitch of the evening ... but it was a short-lived state of euphoria for Gamecocks fans, with the Aggies finding the end zone just 2 minutes and 40 seconds later on a 14-yard TD pass to Edward Pope.
"It was about missing tackles, missing layups (easy tackles)," said Gamecocks linebacker Skai Moore, looking shell-shocked in the post-game media session. "We've got to make a change (attitude-wise) from here."
* * *
Can you imagine the hype for this opener if Manziel (now of the Cleveland Browns) and Clowney (No. 1 overall draft pick with the Houston Texans) had suited up for the Aggies and Gamecocks, respectively? On paper, it would have had all the must-see cachet of Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Oklahoma-Texas or UCLA-Oregon.
And yet, there's a sense of relief that neither Manziel nor Clowney grabbed the headlines from Thursday's high-scoring affair. Gone are the days of South Carolina's defense getting zero credit for highlight-reel plays that didn't involve Clowney; and gone are the days of thinking A&M might devolve into a pedestrian offense once Manziel left campus.
Here's how things can change in today's college football universe: The lack of Clowney vs. Manziel might have hindered the initial TV ratings and/or overall buzz ... but not a single fan would have tuned out this game midway through the first quarter, after seeing Hill rummage through South Carolina's defense, with little resistance.
Perhaps out of morbid curiosity to see if Spurrier would throw his omnipresent visor?
So, does Thursday's dominant effort make Hill an instant household name in college circles, or in the knee-jerk land of social media? Perhaps.
His final output bears some resemblance to BYU's Steve Sarkisian (now the head coach at USC) throwing for five touchdowns in the Cougars' 1995 win over Texas A&M -- a thrilling upset that occurred a full week before the other college programs hit the field.
For a few weeks in '95, Sarkisian was the king of college football, riding high from a nationally televised passing explosion. But he also needed to sustain that greatness to remain in the hotly contested Heisman race (won by Ohio State's Eddie George that year).
Upon first impression, Hill was an unstoppable force against South Carolina. But let's see how his regional/national perception changes in the coming weeks, once the Aggies' Charmin-soft September schedule (Lamar, Rice, SMU, Arkansas) stiffens up in October (at Mississippi State, vs. Ole Miss, at Alabama).
* * *
On this same Thursday night last year, before South Carolina engaged in a border war with North Carolina, Clowney was getting plenty of run as a viable Heisman candidate -- even though no defense-only player has won the award in the modern era (Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson doubled as a receiver/kick returner in 1997).
But that Heisman spotlight quickly vanquished after Clowney -- under constant scrutiny from the in-game cameras -- failed to impact the action in Heisman-like fashion (whatever that means), often struggling through double teams and sometimes wilting in the muggy conditions of South Carolina in August.
Fast forward to the present: Gamecocks running back Mike Davis (1,535 total yards, 11 TDs last year), who tallied just 15 yards on six carries before exiting with a rib injury, might have fallen out of national-award consideration after just one game. (How cruel is that?)
Of equal importance, he was displaced by junior tailback Brandon Wilds, who racked up 77 total yards (45 rushing) off just 11 touches (a team-high).
In other words, these Heisman campaigns sometimes dissolve before the ball even gets rolling.
* * *
At the top of this column, there is no derisive tone when addressing the "newfangled SEC." It was merely a folksy, tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging one hard truth about college football's premier conference:
Texas A&M's style of up-tempo, high-octane offense isn't going away anytime soon. The same can be said for fast-paced, up-and-coming programs like Ole Miss, Missouri, Mississippi State and, to a lesser extent, Kentucky.
When A&M and Mizzou entered the SEC picture in 2012, a lot of pundits (including yours truly) thought the schools would need at least four years to assimilate to the punishing brand of SEC football -- while altering their recruiting philosophies, as well (read: more stout defenders).
Instead, the Aggies and reigning SEC East champion Tigers have invoked a catch-us-if-you-can approach to taking on the conference's traditional powers, putting a greater emphasis on speed, organization, execution and a willingness to never relax against opponents -- regardless of the scoreboard tally.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.