Some quick, barely researched, not fully-formed thoughts from South Carolina’s 35-28 victory over North Carolina State.
Elite. Make no mistake, the victory Saturday over North Carolina State was a complete team effort. Offense, defense, special teams, and all the sub-groups that make up those units had significant contributions in the mild upset of a dark horse contender for the ACC title. But this game was about two guys in particular – Deebo Samuel and Jake Bentley.
Samuel electrified the crowd by taking the opening kickoff of the season back 97 yards for a touchdown. He later scored on a quick slant from six yards out, and then snared a 39-yard rope from Bentley with one hand that is an early candidate for play of the year. One year ago we still weren’t completely sure what we had in Samuel. When healthy he showed flashes of brilliance, but a balky hamstring kept him from reaching his full potential each of the last two seasons. Now Samuel is having high praise heaped on him from national media outlets. Completely healthy, he is the go-to playmaker this team has been missing since Pharoh Cooper took his talents to the NFL.
Meanwhile, Bentley is also drawing high praise after his performance yesterday. His numbers won’t exactly put him in the early Heisman conversation (17-29/215/3 TD/1 INT) but the leadership and poise he showed are those of someone well beyond his years. Oh, and about that elusiveness and arm strength:
Bentley was far from perfect. He missed a handful of easy throws, and had one ill-advised deep ball early that should’ve been intercepted. But regarding those, there is one thing of which we can be assured – he will work hard to correct, and will correct, those mistakes.
The fate of the 2017 season, at least offensively, rests on the shoulders of these two guys.
Statistically speaking. Uh, if you haven’t already, don’t look at the statistics. Just don’t. I know, the only statistic that matters is the final score, but it is a little disturbing that we were doubled up in total yardage and allowed a 400-yard passing game to a slightly above average ACC quarterback.
As we found out last year, bend but don’t break is great when it works, but you can’t rely on it week in and week out. Our pass rush improved as the game went on, but our coverage skills, particularly on one side of the field (cough, King, cough) did not. I loved how some of our young guys looked on the defensive line and at linebacker in particular, but we desperately need to find a way to get off the field on third down more often.
D-lighted. On the bright side, DJ Wonnum and Kier Thomas in particular had very good games on the defensive line, helping the Gamecocks record four sacks on the day while the Wolfpack’s all-world defensive line only had two. In addition, linebacker TJ Brunson racked up 16 (!) tackles and fellow ‘backer and freshman Sherrod Greene showed great speed and aggressiveness while he was on the field. Jamyest Williams took his lumps in the secondary, but he was often matched up against Jaylen Samuel, arguably NC State’s best offensive player. All the freshmen and sophomores in the defensive rotation acquitted themselves well despite the high yardage total given up, which bodes well for the future of the defense.
MIA. The Gamecock run game was non-existent yesterday, which for the moment we will attribute to the stout front seven of NCSU. In a mild upset, AJ Turner got second team carries at tailback over Ty’Son Williams. I’m not sure if that’s a product of Turner’s longevity and good standing with the staff, or if he’s actually outplayed Williams in the preseason. Regardless, neither had an impact on the game, with Turner getting one carry for two yards, and Williams not being credited with a rushing attempt and catching one pass for five yards.
Also missing were our pass catching tight ends. Preseason All-SEC selection Hayden Hurst had a man-sized block on Rico Dowdle’s second touchdown run, but caught only one pass for minus two yards on the day. Neither K.C. Crosby nor Jacob August had a catch. Maybe it was a product of NC State’s defense, but we’ll need production from that position for our offense to be all it can be.
Prevent(s you from winning). The Gamecocks punted to the Wolfpack with 1:38 left in the first half and up by seven. NC State took possession on its own 21 and proceeded to march 79 yards in 10 plays for the game-tying touchdown. How the hell do you get off TEN plays in 1:38? Well, if the defense mostly rushes three and gives a 10-12 yard cushion and doesn’t guard the boundary, turns out it’s pretty darned easy. I still haven’t figured out what the staff was thinking.
Under center. On our final offensive possession, Jake Bentley went under center on second down. I was actually thinking earlier in the week if I could remember Bentley taking a snap under center, and I couldn’t. That second down snap was the first time I can ever remember it happening. I thought it was odd timing given the danger of fumbling a snap in that situation.
However, I do like the fact we are practicing at least some under center. There’s not much worse than a fourth-and-inches situation and seeing a team line up in the shotgun.
Harmon-ized. Sophomore Kelvin Harmon led the Wolfpack in receiving with 10 catches for 114 yards. You may remember Harmon as a former Gamecock commit who spurned the Gamecocks when Steve Spurrier retired. Harmon was the target for NCSU quarterback Ryan Finley on the Wolfpack’s last ditch attempt to tie the game. That would’ve been quite a kick in the jubblies.
Hold the LOLs. Last year at this time we were looking ahead to facing a Mississippi State team that had just been upset by South Alabama. We all had a good laugh at their misfortune, and while we weren’t chalking up a victory quite yet, we certainly felt good about the possibility of going into Starkville and getting the W. We received our comeuppance in the form of a 27-14 beatdown that wasn’t nearly that close.
Yesterday we watched in amazement as Missouri State rolled up 35 points and moved the ball at will against next week’s opponent, Missouri. It was once again LOL-worthy seeing a future conference opponent get shredded like that. However, the Tiger defense tightened up in the second half while their offense never slowed down, scoring 72 points and finishing with 815 total yards.
I’ve seen a lot of Gamecock fans feeling confident about this game, thinking “they won’t be able to stop us, and surely our defense is better than Missouri State’s”. All I can say is, not so fast my friend. Yes, our defense is probably better, but that doesn’t mean this won’t be a shootout. Remember, we gave up a boatload of yards to an offense yesterday that is not nearly as potent as Missouri’s. This game will be a battle, and the fact the Tigers have been installed as a 4.5 point favorite, I think the folks in Las Vegas agree.