My God the freshmen. Of course that’s a paraphrase from Larry Munson’s famous call about Herschel Walker in 1980, but I had to make it plural because it applies to two freshmen on this year’s South Carolina football team. Against Missouri both Jake Bentley and Rico Dowdle continued to put up un-freshman like numbers as the Gamecocks extended their winning streak to three games.
Bentley completed 22 of 28 passes (79%) for 254 yards and two 2 TDs, and has now completed 73% of his passes while averaging more than 200 yards per game in his three starts. Perhaps most importantly, he has six touchdown passes agains ZERO interceptions in 74 attempts. Of course he will eventually throw an interception, perhaps as soon as this weekend against the stout Florida corners, but what amazes me is I can’t think of a throw to this point where he’s even put the ball in significant danger.
Meanwhile, Dowdle ran for 149 yards and scored two TDs. It was his second consecutive 100-yard outing, and he now leads the team with a 5.1 average and 88 yards per game. Dowdle is a “wear down” back, the kind who can get stuffed early in the game but before long two yards per carry turns into six yards per carry and then eventually he rips off a long touchdown run like he did against Missouri.
The fascinating thing about these two guys is Dowdle didn’t play until game five (injury) and Bentley until game seven (coach’s decision). Even so, Dowdle is now the team’s leading rusher by over 100 yards, and Bentley is 39 yards from becoming the leading passer.
What if we would have had both of these guys playing at the beginni…sigh, let’s not think about it.
(No) QB battle. Will Muschamp said after starting Bentley against UMass that Brandon McIlwain would be able to compete for the number one quarterback job in the spring. Now, Bentley still has two challenging road games ahead of him this season (Florida, Clemson), but at this point there is not a chance that he is anything but the clear-cut number one guy heading into the spring and the 2017 season.
So what does this mean for McIlwain? Muschamp maintains that Brandon is an important part of this team going forward and has been a great teammate and has a fantastic attitude. I don’t doubt those last two things one bit, BMac seems like a great kid. But if his “part” on the team is carrying a clipboard for the next three years, you have to wonder if that’s the role he wants to play.
I Samuel 3:4. When Deebo Samuel went down with another hamstring injury earlier this year, I have to admit I just chalked him up as being injury prone and greatly lowered my expectations for him. I figured Bryan Edwards would be out number one target for years to come with the ever-dependable Hayden Hurst being the second option. If we got a few catches from Samuel that would be great, but he was never going to be number one material.
Maybe that reverse psychology worked, because since he’s been back he’s been proving himself as a worthy number one receiver week after week. He’s up to close to 80 yards per game for the season, and is a valuable runner when we need him. He gets tough yards after the catch and wins every 50/50 ball that comes his way. Let’s hope Deebo is here to stay.
Big play defense. The biggest plays of the game were turned in by the defensive players of the game – Rashad Fenton and Taylor Stallworth.
First, Missouri had gained some momentum after tying the game at 21-21 in the third quarter, and they had the ball in South Carolina territory with a chance to take the lead. The Tigers’ Drew Lock lofted a long ball down the right sideline that was slightly under thrown, and Fenton ran under it for the pick. The Gamecocks followed with their longest and best drive of the season, a 98-yard march that resulted in the winning points.
Then, with USC up by ten midway through the fourth, Missouri was getting in position to cut into the lead. On third down and nine, Stallworth knocked down a pass headed to an open Tiger receiver that would have picked up the first down. On the next play they missed a field goal that would’ve brought them to within one score, and for all intents and purposes ended their chances of winning.
Turnover game. The Gamecocks are now plus-9 on the season in turnover margin, tops in the SEC. They are plus-8 on their three-game win streak, and didn’t have a turnover against Tennessee or Missouri.
Boom. Muschamp has started to silence some of his detractors during the win streak. There are still (IMHO) issues with his conservative coaching style on the offensive side of the ball, but what he and Travaris Robinson have done with the defense is nothing short of a miracle. Consider this: the defense consists of many of the same guys as last year, plus a few freshmen, and minus all-SEC standout Skai Moore. With that group they are solidly in the middle of pack defensively in the SEC, and haven’t allowed more than 28 points in any single game.
The path to Atlanta. Yes, there is a path to Atlanta, and I’ll let you look that up somewhere else. But I do know that first and foremost it involves beating Florida in the Swamp, and despite their blowout loss to Arkansas yesterday, I can promise you it will extremely difficult. Florida’s offense is relatively anemic, but their defense is stacked with NFL talent. It will be a big challenge for our young skill players.
Now, for those of you who think it would be any sort of negative for us to win the division with a 4-4 record and have to play number one Alabama in Atlanta, I must ask you…
WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?
First of all, a division title is a division title. Yes, we’d all rather be the champs of the the best division in the best conference, but I will certainly not turn my nose up at being the champs of the worst P5 division in the country. Look, we have ONE division title in 23 years in the SEC, why would you not want to be able to hang another banner.
Alabama, you say? So what if we go to Atlanta and get thrashed 48-3 by the Tide. We wouldn’t be the first team to get fustigated by ‘Bama, and we wouldn’t be the last. Playing in the SEC Championship Game is an incredible recruiting tool, and would be great experience for the young guys on the team.
That said, it ain’t happening folks.
Bowl eligible. One thing we are one step away from is bowl eligibility, which is something I wouldn’t have given us a snowball’s chance in Nick Saban’s living room of happening when we were sitting at 2-4. Look, I’ll say it, we’ll beat Western Carolina, and at worst finish 6-6. Anything else in 2016 is pure gravy.