Here comes the sun. South Carolina entered Saturday’s game against Ole Miss with the season on the line. Saddled with three losses to top 25 teams and no particularly impressive wins*, a loss to the mediocre Rebels would’ve pushed the Gamecocks further down the SEC pecking order. With four games left, two being presumed losses at Florida and Clemson, a groan-inducing trip to Shreveport or Birmingham for bowl season was staring USC down like my wife when I tell here there weren’t any fresh avocados at Trader Joe’s.
The game itself was a roller coaster, with both offenses moving virtually at will for three quarters. Any time one of the offenses didn’t hold serve it felt like a turning point in the game. But the Gamecocks came up with just enough stops in the first 45 minutes, then clamped down on the potent Rebel offense in the fourth quarter. When the smoke cleared USC had a 48-44 conference road victory, and you can never turn your nose up at a conference road victory in the SEC.
Ole Miss is a very dangerous team, but they are not a very good team, and a loss would have been devastating to our postseason hopes. Instead, we moved to 5-3 with two home games against very beatable opponents that should get us to the 7-win mark, and a step above the entry-level SEC bowls.
In addition, that “presumed loss” to Florida doesn’t look so presumed any more after they were dismantled in the Swamp by Missouri. A team once ranked in the top 10 now looks vulnerable, and South Carolina could be catching them at the right time. That could get us to eight wins a trip back to Florida for bowl season. Given the stress this season has caused us, I think we’d all sign up for that.
*Don’t get me wrong, ALL wins are good wins.
QB1. By just about any measure Jake Bentley had his best game of the season on Saturday, if not the best game of his career. Bentley went 22-32 for 363 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs and one rushing touchdown. Besides the gaudy stat line, he was under control, in command of the offense, and as accurate as we’ve seen him in a Gamecock uniform.
And yet, there are still naysayers who point out he was playing against the worst defense in the SEC. These are fans (much smaller in number these days) that are still calling for Michael Scarnecchia to get his shot, and fans that have completely lost the desire to see Jake Bentley do well or compliment him in any form or fashion at the risk of having to admit their opinion was wrong.
I feel like I’ve typed this before so forgive me if I’m repeating myself – Jake Bentley is still far from perfect. I expect he will struggle again at some point this season considering he will be facing a pretty good defense in Florida and (gulp) a borderline NFL defense in Clemson. Two and a half years in he is still a work in progress, but it appears he is getting better. It just hasn’t happened as fast as we would have liked.
I can’t believe I’m breathing life into this dead debate, but here’s the bottom line – Bentley gives us the best chance to win at quarterback and it is not close. Michael Scarnecchia had a legendary day against Missouri, one for which he will always be remembered in Gamecock lore. But he is also the guy who was beat out by Connor Mitch and Brandon McIlwain. So for those of you who still want to see Bentley benched, please stop, especially on the heels of his best day as a Gamecock. Celebrate and enjoy these kids when they do well, and don’t pile on when they don’t.
Adjustments. South Carolina gave up an embarrassing 600 yards of offense to Ole Miss through three quarters. The defensive line was getting very little push, and Rebel receivers were finding large pockets downfield in the middle of our zone to pick up chunks of yards. On the ground they picked up almost five yards a carry. It didn’t help that our defensive backfield has been decimated by injury.
But according to Will Muschamp, the staff decided to switch from man to zone in the fourth quarter. From that point on we looked like the ’86 Bears, holding Ole Miss to an astonishing 18 yards on 19 plays.
Why did it take so long? Playing man to man defense is more taxing to the individual DB’s over the course of 60 minutes. According to Muschamp, we simply didn’t have the horses to run man for much more than a quarter.
Punishment. A sorely underrated play in the game was actually a 15-yard personal foul on South Carolina. With under two minutes to go in the third quarter and the Gamecocks down 37-34, JJ Enagbare picked up a roughing the passer call that briefly knocked Rebel quarterback Jordan Ta’amu out of the game. He returned to the game, but was never quite the same. (It was the “I don’t really want to be here any more” look.) Later in the fourth quarter, TJ Brunson and Rick Sandidge did a number on Ta’amu that had him getting up slowly again. Never underestimate the impact of a good shot to the quarterback (although we’d prefer it didn’t draw a penalty).
Personality. Gene Chizik on the SEC Network said after the game that the Gamecocks have taken on the personality of head coach Will Muschamp – scratch and claw and do everything in your power to win, even if you don’t always look good doing it. Yep, that’s our brand.
Cardiac Cocks. Along those lines, The Big Spur tweeted today that the Gamecocks are 13-4 in one-score games under Muschamp. That’s a pretty incredible stat.
Hey Mon. Mon Denson once again proved why he is one of our favorite Gamecocks. As the third or fourth option at running back, there are times you forget he’s on the roster. But you’ve never heard a complaint, never heard a peep about Denson being disgruntled or disappointed in his playing time. He just works. And works. And works. And waits for his time to arrive.
On Saturday, with Rico Dowdle out with an injury and Ty’Son Williams slowed by one, his time arrived. All he did was respond with a career-high 102 yards on 12 carries, including a nice 69-yard run that led to the winning touchdown. Players with that kind of character combined with that level of talent are always welcome.
Pooch. Ole Miss obviously had a game plan to keep the ball away from Deebo Samuel on Saturday, they just did a very bad job executing it. The idea was to kick it short enough that an up back for South Carolina would field the ball, but the Rebel kicker kept sending the ball just a little too deep. Samuel took advantage with a 90-yard return for TD to open the game, and had a 38-yard return into Ole Miss territory in the fourth quarter that led to another touchdown.
This and that. Although our run game has been virtually non-existent for most of the season, the offensive line has been fantastic in pass protection from week to week…setting aside some inexplicable drops, has South Carolina ever had a more talented trio of wide receivers than Deebo, Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith? Going old school here, but the only ones I can think of would be Sterling Sharpe, Ryan Bethea and Danny Smith back in the mid-80s…Bentley had some fantastic throws on Saturday, but none better than the short touch pass to Josh Vann for his first career TD…it was good to see Jaylin Dickerson finally get on the field, and I must say, he didn’t embarrass himself. I hope he earned some more minutes with the coaching staff…early in the game it looked like Rashad Fenton would get dragged all over the field by all-SEC receiver AJ Brown, but Fenton shut him down in the second half.
Thanks for reading, and Go Cocks!