Will's Last Word: The Curious Case of Ryan Hilinski

Straight Up With Sturg
September 16, 2019 - 2:12 pm

South Carolina freshman QB Ryan Hilinski has shown over his first two collegiate games that his inexperience would not be the reason for the Gamecocks season faltering.

Not that Will Muschamp is rooting for a bowl-less season, but if one comes in concert with Hilinski's progression, it could prove to be a lethal cocktail for the embattled head coach.

Muschamp has had to deal with the questionable play of his team's defense in the two South Carolina losses, including inexplicable tackling woes from his players in open space. Four of Alabama's touchdowns in the 47-23 rout of the Gamecocks came from outside of the red zone, a direct product of the chasm of talent from the Crimson Tide's skill-position players to that of South Carolina. Regardless, the Gamecocks proved they could move the football against Alabama, and had the game in uncomfortable straits for the Tide as late as the middle part of the third quarter.

Hilinski completed and attempted more passes than any freshman in South Carolina history on Saturday, as his line (36-57, 324 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) earned him SEC Freshman of the Week honors, an award that seldom goes to a player on a losing team. The running game also had bouts of success for South Carolina, as Rico Dowdle's 102 yards on the ground showed a tenacity an violence rarely seen from the senior from Asheville, NC. While Hilinski's receivers left some meat on the bone with drops, the blunders from the man in the headset proved harder to ignore.

Muschamp coached the game like a desperate man, admitting following the game he felt the need to "steal possessions" in order to stay in the game against the Crimson Tide. Truth be told, the field goal fake was a stroke of genius, and almost worked if not for Kyle Markway's hold (ticky-tak at best, but the right call, nonetheless). Some of the decisions, or indecision, however, from the head man were more perplexing. He failed to give a credible explanation for not calling timeout to review the play where Dowdle was stopped short of the goal line. While he clarified on his Sunday teleconference that replay officials said they didn't have enough evidence for the play to undergo further review, there was more than a tepid dissatisfaction from the Gamecocks faithful toward the officiating crew and Muschamp. While one angle eventually showed Dowdle's knee appeared to be close to, if not on, the ground, it's impossible to fathom how the replay booth came to that conclusion so quickly. It was the right opportunity, among the rare ones given, to challenge a call by Muschamp, and he failed in that vein.

He also created a demoralizing moment calling for a fake punt on a 4th and 5 on his own 30-yard line. While his defense bailed him out, forcing an Alabama missed field goal, the message sent by Muschamp was they didn't feel confident accruing the line to gain with conventional means. I'm all for going for it in that scenario, but leave your offense on the field. He looked inconsistent with his philosophy as well, settling for a 48-yard field goal at the start of the 4th Quarter down 21 points, where three would not have helped them. Then Muschamp called an onside kick, which resulted in an Alabama recovery and touchdown in quick succession, to drive the final nail into the coffin.

This is not the first time Muschamp's in-game management decisions have drawn the ire and criticism from fans and media alike, even including this season. Many believe the conservative nature of Bryan McClendon's offensive play-calling results from Muschamp's desire to leave the balance of the game in the hands of defense. Whether that's an unproven conspiracy theory or rooted in truth, there's no question the microscope is on the man known as "Boom", with the two most important games of his tenure on the horizon.

South Carolina has the capability to win its next two games at Missouri and at home against Kentucky, which would steer the course towards the direction of a bowl game and get the Gamecocks over the .500 mark. A loss in either or both games would increase the scrutiny on Muschamp, especially if Hilinski proves he's not the reason for South Carolina's failures.

After Jake Bentley became shelved for the season, I said the injury could have been the way for the head coach to escape the season unscathed. Now, if the losses mount, Hilinski's handiness might be the reason to "lower the boom" on Muschamp.

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