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South Carolina vs. Eastern Illinois: Game Preview

Football is finally here!

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The long wait is over, and the Shane Beamer era at South Carolina starts in just a couple short days. The Gamecocks are, blessedly, diverging from their recent tradition of opening the season against a Power 5 opponent and have instead chosen an FCS foe to kick things off with. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to expect from Eastern Illinois.

Who are these guys? The Panthers hail from the Ohio Valley Conference, where they’ve been picked to finish last. They did, however, place two players on the preseason all-conference teams: Linebacker Jason Johnson, who was an All-American last season, earned a second-team nod, while kick returner Matt Judd landed on the specialists team.

What have they been up to lately? Eastern Illinois comes to Columbia with a game already under its belt, a 26-21 loss to Indiana State. Quarterback Otto Kuhns was 14 of 29 for 253 yards, two interceptions, and no touchdowns. The Panthers’ leading rusher, Harrison Bey-Buie, amassed only 57 yards, although receiver Demetrius Garrett Jr. broke the century mark with 116 yards on five catches.

One factor worth noting: Thanks to FCS playing a spring season due to COVID, this EIU group has played a lot of football together this calendar year, even if you take away last week’s game. It shouldn’t matter, but when the Gamecocks inevitably show some rust, it’d be good to keep that in mind.

What happens when the Gamecocks have the ball? Great question! We don’t really know yet. All eyes will be on emergency quarterback Zeb Noland, of course, but I expect the running game to feature heavily in this one. Returning SEC leading rusher Kevin Harris is the known quantity here, but fans will be excited to finally see bluechip prospect MarShawn Lloyd in action after an ACL tear ended his 2020 season before it even began. It’d certainly be nice to see some signs of life from the passing game, though, as well as snaps from current fan favorite and backup quarterback Jason Brown.

What happens when the Panthers have the ball? Hopefully turnovers! Without that, the Panthers likely win their Week 0 contest, as they held the Sycamores to 245 yards of total offense. The EIU offense has a fairly balanced run-pass ratio, but mustered just 20 points per game to rank near the bottom of the OVC last season. Quarterback Kuhn, who split time throughout the shortened six-game campaign, threw for 509 yards and five touchdowns against four interceptions. There doesn’t really appear to be a clear standout in the EIU backfield or receiver corps, with touches and targets spread around. This is, ideally, a chance for South Carolina’s defensive line and linebackers — led by Kingsley Enagbare, Aaron Sterling, and Zacch Pickens, among others — to tee off.

What are we wearing? White helmets, garnet jerseys, white pants. Unsurprisingly, Beamer is returning to a Spurrier-era staple, and it sounds like the Gamecocks are going to get back to basics this season as far as uniform combinations are concerned. It’s a little disappointing for folks who enjoyed the “Battle Armor” videos and the wide variety of wardrobe choices during the Muschamp era, but we did trot out some hideous looks while taking hideous Ls, so it’s probably not the worst idea to pare back the fashion for now.

How are we feeling about this? Realistically speaking, Eastern Illinois should have no business giving South Carolina even a whiff of trouble, despite the upheaval at quarterback and a new head coach. Gamecock fans live in a permanent state of paranoia, which is unfortunately justified, but I think we’re safe to expect this to play out as a tune-up game and a good start to the season. (Yes, I’m aware I’m still using weasel words.)