South Carolina isn’t even close to being the same team it was a year ago. To be honest, the Gamecocks are not even the same team they were six weeks ago.
Following his team’s 28-14 loss to Georgia on Oct. 9, new head coach Will Muschamp went into the open week with a decision to make at quarterback. Does he stay with true freshman Brandon McIlwain or does he burn the redshirt of fellow freshman Jake Bentley?
When the Gamecocks kicked off 13 days later against UMass, it was Bentley who trotted onto the field and they have not looked back since. Bentley completed 17 of 26 passes for 201 yards in a 38-24 victory. South Carolina is 4-1 since and comes into Saturday’s game in Death Valley against No. 4 Clemson playing with a lot of confidence.
“We know we have a good team coming in here. Will has done an excellent job. He really has. They are very well coached. Their staff has done a great job in building some positive momentum and coming back from obviously a disappointing season last year,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
Last year, the Gamecocks were 3-9 after Steve Spurrier quit the program at midseason. They lost their last six games.
Things have been different this year. After a 2-4 start, no one was quitting on the team at midseason and now they are 6-5 and bowl eligible.
“To come back and have them bowl eligible, they are playing a lot of new guys, they have done a heck of a job,” Swinney said.
The difference in the Gamecocks all starts at quarterback where Bentley, just 19 years old, has done a good job of managing the game and putting his team in successful situations. His numbers are not flashy, but they are solid.
Bentley has completed 66.2 percent of his 130 passes. He has thrown just one interception and has six touchdowns for 989 yards.
“He is obviously well-groomed to be a very successful college quarterback. His dad has coached him forever and is one of the best coaches we’ve had in the state, so he is very well prepared,” Swinney said. “He is a freshman, but he is not your typical freshman. He is very knowledgeable, he has a great understanding of what they’re doing offensively, and again it has just kind of settled them down and they have played very well since he took over.”
USC is also playing very well on defense, too. The Gamecocks are a “bend but don’t break unit,” but they are very food in red zone defense as well at forcing turnovers. Their 24 forced turnovers rank sixth nationally, while they rank eighth in turnover margin at plus-10.
As for red zone defense, South Carolina ranks 10th and has allowed just 21 touchdowns in 41 attempts.
“Defensively, there are several guys that we have seen from last year. Taylor Stallworth is a load inside. He is a very good player. Darius English, who we played against the last few years, has nine sacks and is a long and athletic kid,” Swinney said. “Donte Sawyer, has quick twitch, and is a good athlete. I am very impressed with their linebackers. Jonathan Walton is a really good football player. Bryson Allen-Williams is the thumper. T.J. Holloman has played quite a bit, and he has played all three spots. They are a very good group at linebacker.
“And then in secondary, they have a new kid at corner who I think is a very good player. He is fast. They do a nice job with their two safeties. The biggest thing defensively, and obviously with Will’s background, has always been defense, they are very well coached. They understand what they’re doing, and they have done a nice job positioning their guys to have a chance to be successful.”
—Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports