How much has South Carolina really improved? Kentucky game will tell us

South Carolina’s locker room was littered with trash.

This wasn’t an oversight or a failure on housekeeping. This was intentional — a ploy by head coach Shane Beamer, his players explained. Losses to No. 1 Georgia and No. 20 Arkansas perpetuated a gloomy mood around Columbia.

That left South Carolina’s second-year head coach with an idea.

“Coach Beamer told everyone to pick up a piece of trash and throw away whatever was bothering you or whatever was stopping you from being the best version of yourself,” running back MarShawn Lloyd said. “Some people were noticing selfishness or not being confident. I feel like that was a big team moment for us, because a lot of us really felt the connection there.”

South Carolina has been in tricky spots before. That comes with playing one of the nation’s trickiest schedules year in and year out. But the listless effort against No. 1 Georgia three weeks ago rekindled the criticisms of last year’s squad.

The offense was anemic. The defense was shredded on the ground. Nothing — and I mean nothing — could get going.

But after a 50-10 win over South Carolina State on Thursday, consider Beamer’s point and the “connection” Lloyd referenced made heading into the heart of Southeastern Conference play.

“I realize that people said, ‘OK, coming out of that Georgia game they’ve got two nonconference games they’re gonna win no matter what,’ ” Beamer said. “And that’s not the truth. You’ve got to work hard. These are good football teams that we play that’ve got good players.

“... I feel like we’re playing better. Are we playing our best football? No, there’s a lot to clean up. But I saw a lot of a lot of signs of us getting better as a football team over the last couple of weeks.”

Take Thursday’s win at face value. It was an SEC team doing what it should to an overmatched FCS foe — albeit one that won the HBCU national championship a year ago.

Still, progress was, in theory, made.

Quarterback Spencer Rattler looked closer to the form folks thought he might bring to Columbia. He completed 77.8% of his throws, his best mark of the year. The 212 yards he recorded were his most in a game since Week 2 at Arkansas.

Even the two interceptions he tossed fell more on receiver Xavier Legette — who watched a pair of passes run through his hands and into those of a Bulldogs defender — than Rattler.

South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Xavier Legette (17) is on the ground after South Carolina State Bulldogs defensive back Duane Nichols (10) gains control of the ball at Williams-Brice Stadium on Thursday, September 29, 2022.
South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Xavier Legette (17) is on the ground after South Carolina State Bulldogs defensive back Duane Nichols (10) gains control of the ball at Williams-Brice Stadium on Thursday, September 29, 2022.

The Gamecocks defense, too, played the opportunistic, attacking style that kept South Carolina in games and, against East Carolina, among others, won them contests a year ago.

It marked the second consecutive week South Carolina picked off an opposing quarterback three times. That’s the first such occurrence since 2011. It also held the shifty S.C. State quarterback combo of Tyrece Nick and Corey Field to 7 of 18 passing for 75 yards.

“It shows you how mature our team is and how close-knit our team is,” Lloyd said of the week-to-week improvement. “It’s just been great. We showed we can score 50 points. A lot of people said we can’t score. A lot of people said we can’t get a stop. But these last two weeks have been amazing on all cylinders.”

Beamer isn’t a cliche machine or a coach-speak guru. He’s not the “Get 1% better every week” or “Keep chopping wood” guy, either. There’s thoughtful lessons in his coaching, rhetoric and demeanor that tend to avoid corniness.

He’s the coach who had his players sit in the highest corners of Williams-Brice Stadium to understand what fans go through just to watch the Gamecocks. He spent months trying to build a culture of love and compassion within a program that oozed doom and gloom following Will Muschamp’s ousting.

That’s why, amid a 1-2 start, Beamer decided to have his team pick up trash and “throw out” whatever blocked the minds of his players ahead of last week’s 56-20 win over Charlotte.

Next week, though, the real test begins.

South Carolina has lost seven of its last eight games to Kentucky. This year’s iteration of the Wildcats are ranked No. 7 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll and are a trendy pick to challenge No. 1 Georgia in the SEC East.

The Gamecocks looked like a team learning about itself in dominating wins over the FBS’s worst statistical defense (Charlotte) and an FCS squad (S.C. State). Now comes proving it against the big boys.

Next Saturday, we’ll find out whether the results of the last two weeks are real — or, perhaps, worthy of being thrown out, too.