When sophomore wide receiver Pharoh Cooper lined up on the field Saturday night, the smoke pouring from the dumpster fire that is South Carolina’s defense seemed a little easier to endure.
New life filled the lungs of the South Carolina faithful as they looked for some faith that the fire would not spread and ultimately consume the entire team.
That faith was Cooper and his 286 all-purpose yards, which extinguished the memories of poor tackling and blown assignments. That is, until the defense was let back on the field.
As Cooper proved in the Saturday’s loss to Tennessee, he's an asset the Gamecocks use effectively on offense and special teams, but he can only watch when it's the defense’s turn.
The receiver from Havelock, North Carolina caught 11 passes for a school record 233 yards and two touchdowns, rushed three times for 23 and another score and on top of that, added a 30-yard touchdown pass to junior running back Brandon Wilds out of the Wildcat formation.
As if accounting for nearly half of the team’s offensive yards was not enough, he also had a key play on special teams, recovering a Tennessee onside kick with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
“After the onside kick recovery, personally I thought the game was over,” Cooper said. “But, as you see, you’ve gotta play until the end. They came back and they beat us. We thought we had the game, but they came back and fought harder.”
Cooper seemingly put the game on ice before recovering the onside kick when he caught an 85-yard touchdown pass from redshirt senior Dylan Thompson, winning a footrace against a Tennessee defender to put the Gamecocks up by 14 in the fourth quarter.
But South Carolina’s talented young receiver was forced to watch as the defense surrendered 21 fourth-quarter points, including 14 inside the final two minutes of regulation, erasing the lead Cooper and the offense provided.
“Even though I had a big game and I guess set a record, [we] still lost the game,” Cooper said. “All that stuff goes out the window. It’s just very frustrating. We’ve lost five games this year.”
Despite head coach Steve Spurrier addressing the media for less than a minute following Saturday’s loss, Cooper’s name was one of few performances Spurrier acknowledged before walking out.
“A lot of guys really had sensational games, Pharoh Cooper, Brandon Wilds and so forth,” he said. “Lot of guys played well, but we couldn’t hold the lead there.”
Over the past two games, Cooper has caught 18 passes for 360 yards and four receiving touchdowns. He also owns a 50 percent completion percentage during that stretch, completing two of four passes for 44 yards and a touchdown. He's fifth on the team in rushing and owns 33 yards and a score on the ground in South Carolina’s last two games.
Cooper is second in the Southeastern Conference in receiving with 786 yards this season. He trails only Alabama receiver Amari Cooper, who owns 1,132 receiving yards on the year.
Though the 2014 season has become a lost cause, Cooper’s long-term value to the team will prove immeasurable with a new starting quarterback under center next season.