South Carolina started four new players on offense in Saturday's 38-21 SEC victory over Mississippi State at Williams-Brice Stadium.
All four of them - quarterback Chris Smelley, wide receiver Dion Lecorn, left guard Seaver Brown and right guard James Thompson - played reasonably well in the much-needed win, which improved USC to 4-1 overall, 2-1 in the SEC.
In addition, junior Marvin Sapp made his first start since early last season when he manned the middle of the Gamecock defense in place of the injured Jasper Brinkley.
Sapp finished with a team-high eight tackles, including six solos, to match his career high. It was the most tackles for the Jacksonville, Fla. native since the Georgia game last season when he also had eight stops.
"I was satisfied with my effort but I just have to continue to get better," Sapp said. "They handed me the gauntlet. I'm the one out there playing, so I had to play the right way. Earlier in my career, my coaches said I was inconsistent. I'm trying to prove now that I can be consistent. I believe I can make an impact on the defense and contribute."
Sapp played an integral role in limiting Mississippi State's strong rushing attack to 140 total net yards on 42 attempts, an average of just 3.3 yards per carry.
"Our defense, I thought, played very well," USC head coach Steve Spurrier said. "We forced seven punts and only punted four (times)."
Sapp, USC's second leading tackler last season despite starting only three games, made four tackles in one second quarter drive by MSU.
But the quarterback always grabs the lion's share of attention and South Carolina is no different. Smelley, who celebrated his 21st birthday Saturday, impressed his teammates and coaches with his confident demeanor throughout the game.
Smelley completed 19-of-37 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs for the heralded recruit from Tuscaloosa, Ala. USC gained 402 total yards against one of the better defenses in the SEC.
Smelley did the bulk of his damage throwing the ball in the first half when he connected on 14-of-25 passes for 182 yards. He was 3-of-5 for 62 yards on USC's opening drive of the game when the Gamecocks took the opening kickoff and moved 69 yards in 12 plays for the first of its five touchdowns on the afternoon.
Later, he completed three consecutive passes during a quick four-play, 37-yard drive bridging the first and second quarters to give USC a 14-7 lead.
"In the players' eyes, he did a heckuva job to step in there and make the completions," Cory Boyd said. "I know Coach is happy he made the completions. He did some good things for the offense. He stayed poised in the pocket today. In the huddle, he said some things to the offensive line. He's a good guy to be around when he's in the huddle."
You can also count wide receiver Kenny McKinley among those impressed by how Smelley handled himself.
"For his first real big-game competition, I'd give him an 'A'," McKinley said. "He really shined. I'm really excited to go on with this season behind Chris. All the guys are really backing Chris. I know he'll play well from this point onward."
Although he connected on just 5-of-12 passes for 97 yards in the second half, most of those completions came at big moments. He hit Kenny McKinley for a 27-yard touchdown over the middle on the first play from scrimmage after Eric Norwood had blocked a punt.
Later, he combined with McKinley on a 48-yard pass play on third-and-4 to move the ball from near midfield to the MSU 4. The next play, after a Bulldog penalty, Mike Davis powered his way for a two-yard touchdown to give the Gamecocks a 31-21 lead.
McKinley praised Smelley, the first redshirt freshman to start the season opener for the Gamecocks since Todd Ellis in 1986, for bringing "a little oomph" to the huddle.
"I can't wait to play Thursday night on national TV because Chris is a real confident guy," McKinley said.
Brown, a redshirt freshman from Clearwater, Fla., and Thompson, a senior from Sumter, S.C., started at both guard spots and performed admirably, Spurrier said. They're weren't perfect since the offensive line struggled in the early going but they settled down and blocked well for most the second half.
"The protection wasn't all that super early but it got a little bit better late in the game," Spurrier said. "We thought Seaver held up pretty well in there. There were no glaring whiffs up front. They have a good defense but Chris took care of the ball well."
Thompson, who made his fourth career start in four seasons, opened up a running lane for Davis with an effective lead block for the final touchdown of the game.
Lecorn made his first career start at wide receiver and had two receptions for 12 yards. His first career catch came midway through the first quarter when he caught a three-yard pass from Smelley.
His second catch, a 9-yard reception on third-and-10 down to the MSU 41, came in the third quarter and helped set up a 50-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Succop.
Lecorn, who earned the start because of his strong blocking skills, was the only true freshman wide receiver to make a catch for USC during the game. Tight end Weslye Saunders had one reception for six yards and Patrick DiMarco had a catch for nine yards.
Thirteen true freshman from the highly touted Class of 2007 have seen action this season.
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