After the struggles of the 2015 season, and a less than ideal start to this year, the South Carolina Gamecocks were headed in the wrong direction. Head Coach Will Muschamp’s team will now need to prove they can handle a taste of success. The Gamecocks season has taken quite a turn in the last three weeks. South Carolina headed into their bye week at 2-4 and riding a three game losing streak. While they had fought hard and made things tough on opponents, they were not making enough plays to win. After six games Muschamp’s team was dead last in the nation in scoring offense. The defense was improved but not without its own issues. Now, with a big win over a ranked team, the Gamecocks must handle success.
Break Out The Bentley
While Quarterback play was certainly not the only issue the Gamecocks faced, inconsistency behind center was a major issue. Muschamp and Offensive Coordinator Kurt Roper decided to pull the redshirt off freshman Jake Bentley during the bye week. Fans of the garnet and black were both skeptical and excited by this decision. It was a balance between the potential of a young, talented quarterback and wasting a year of eligibility on what looked to be a lost season.
South Carolina has now won back-to-back games and is in solid position to reach a bowl game. Bentley looks to be the Gamecocks answer behind center, and most arguments over wasting a year by pulling his redshirt have quieted down. The freshman has been efficient and poised in his two games of action, accounting for 368 yards, 4 touchdowns, and completing 69% of his passes. He is also yet to turn the ball over in his short tenure as the starting quarterback. For a team that was struggling with depth on defense and scoring on offense, maintaining possession of the ball is vital. While Bentley has not been overwhelmingly brilliant and the other quarterbacks, Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain, were not completely terrible, this is a results-oriented business. Bentley has sparked an otherwise stagnant offense, and is 2-0 as the starter.
Getting Healthy Playmakers
South Carolina’s offensive improvement can be attributed as much to the return of healthy playmakers as to the new starter under center. Sophomore wide out Deebo Samuel has been very impressive since returning from a lingering hamstring problem. He had eight receptions for 156 yards while playing in only three of the first six games. Samuel has eight catches in each of the last two ball games, totaling 189 yards.
Freshman receiver Bryan Edwards has also missed some time due to injury this year, but has come back healthy after the bye. After starting the season with eight catches and 101 yards in the opener at Vanderbilt, Edwards had seen his production drop drastically. He has started to pick it back up though with two touchdowns in the last two weeks. He is still showcasing his hands and athletic ability, making at least one spectacular catch per game look routine. Tight ends Hayden Hurst and K. C. Crosby have been the only pass catchers available all year. Both have emerged as solid options, and the tight ends have been a strength of the team all season long.
Committee of One
When the year began, the Gamecocks didn’t know who their main ball carrier would be. The thought was that they would use a running-back-by-committee system. Early in the season it was a combination of junior David Williams and redshirt freshman A.J. Turner. While both players had some good moments, neither could find consistent running room. Creating their own space by making guys miss has not been happened as often as needed. Enter true freshman Rico Dowdle. Since his return from injury, he has galvanized the South Carolina rushing attack. After jumping in the rotation for the Texas A&M and Georgia games, he has made the position all his over the last two weeks.
After a solid outing in his first start versus Massachusetts, Dowdle had his first career 100 yard performance in the upset of Tennessee last Saturday. He has shown an ability to gain a few yards when it looks like none are there. His tough running and vision were sorely missed the first four games. Williams and Turner are still getting their opportunities, but Dowdle has certainly made the running back position a committee of one.
Name – Carries – Yards – Avg – TDs
A.J. Turner 75 328 4.4 2
Rico Dowdle 59 291 4.9 3
David Williams 41 186 4.5 2
Gamecocks Must Handle Success
When the Gamecocks left the field at Kentucky after a disappointing 17-10 loss to the Wildcats, the outlook was bleak. Most fans and pundits alike thought any chance at getting to 6 wins and bowl eligibility was lost. South Carolina was almost certainly going to have to upset a team to have a chance at six wins. The garnet and black got their upset this past weekend. This young team’s ability to handle a taste of success will be a key moving forward. After hearing for most of the year that this is a lost season and a rebuilding year, now they have to figure out how to deal with being a favored team.
“We haven’t arrived, but this is a big win for out team.”
“We haven’t arrived, but this is a big win for out team.” Coach Will Muschamp said after the win over Tennessee on Saturday.
The Road Ahead
At 4-4 (2-4 in SEC play) there is still very little margin for error. Coach Muschamp’s squad has two home games remaining — against Missouri and Western Carolina — and will be favored in both contests. The other two ballgames will be on the road in two of the toughest environments in college football. South Carolina visits The Swamp versus the Florida Gators and travels to Clemson to face the hated instate rival. Wins will be tough to come by in those two road games. It is imperative that the Gamecocks stay focused and win their two remaining home games.
Missouri has not looked good in its SEC games this year and was already one of the teams that South Carolina matched-up well against. The offense has improved over the last two weeks and South Carolina should be able to pick up two home wins. It will not be easy though.
One of the oldest traditions in college football is for a team to get a big win, then follow it up with a lackluster performance the next week. The Gamecocks will need to avoid this trap. The team must come out this Saturday with the same effort and intensity that led to the upset over the 18th-ranked Volunteers. Coach Muschamp will need his guys fully focused on playing their best. A letdown now could cancel out the progress the team has made since the bye week. A stumble against Missouri or Western Carolina would fumble the momentum from their recent win against Tennessee.
This young team will need to maintain its focus to handle its first taste of success. South Carolina plays the most true freshman in the nation. Keeping these young men grounded after such a big win will be key. This group can now transition from a young team looking to improve, to one looking to achieve.