South Carolina vs. Texas A&M

Jake Bentley

Jake Bentley was struggling. He had completed just six passes for 46 yards in the first half against Texas A&M and South Carolina fans were letting him have it.

With the Gamecocks trailing 13-0 at the half, they booed him unmercifully as he jogged to the locker room, calling for backup Michael Scarnecchia to replace him.

Such is life for a Power 5 quarterback when he doesn’t always live up to expectations. Just ask Georgia’s Jake Fromm. Or former Alabama starter Jalen Hurts. Even Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence has felt the wrath of a fickle fanbase.

But Bentley, battling his way back from a knee injury that had cost him a game, would not be deterred.

RELATED: Bentley transferring: 'I will forever be grateful'

Down 16-0 in the third quarter, he began fighting back. Touchdown passes to Shi Smith and Chavis Dawkins, each followed by a 2-point conversion to Bryan Edwards, quickly tied the game. By the third quarter, fans had turned and were cheering him again. Though they lost 26-23 that day, Bentley threw three second-half touchdown passes to bring the Gamecocks back and prove once again he could lead his team.

In the next game, Bentley rallied the Gamecocks again. Down 21-9 to Tennessee, he led South Carolina on two quick touchdown drives. When he scrambled into the end zone for a 2-point conversion to tie the game, he took a brutal hit that left in laying in the South Carolina end zone for more than a minute. But Bentley soon popped up, jogged ff the field and led the Gamecocks on the game-winning drive for a 27-24 win at Williams-Brice Stadium.

That was Jake Bentley. He never quit, never gave up and always did whatever it took to try to lead his team to victory.

Seemingly at a crossroads in his career after a tough game at Kentucky, a knee injury and that miserable first half against Texas A&M, Bentley bounced back to lead South Carolina to wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss and had the game of his life against rival Clemson.

A three-year starter, Bentley didn’t care about his own stats or even his own body. He didn’t listen to critics and detractors and never let a bad game, injuries or a little adversity get him down. Winning is all that mattered.

“At the end of the day, it’s not going to be Jake Bentley won, it’s going to be South Carolina won, and that’s the most important thing,” Bentley said prior to this season.

Bentley, 19-14 as South Carolina’s starting quarterback, suffered his greatest adversity this season. Poised for a big senior year, he suffered a broken foot in the season opener and missed the rest of the season. But instead of moping and pouting and entering the transfer portal, Bentley was at practice every week and on the sideline every Saturday, helping the team’s young quarterbacks.

You can’t help but wonder how this 4-8 season might have turned out had Bentley not gone down.

Now he is moving on, choosing to play his final season of college football at another school. He announced his decision with the same grace and class he demonstrated throughout his South Carolina career, thanking his coaches, teammates and fans.

“South Carolina has developed me into a better football player, but more importantly, it’s developed me into a better person,” he said. “USC will forever be part of who I am.”

Bentley had plenty of ups and downs at South Carolina, and while some fans will choose to remember the losses and struggles, he had more highlights than low points. Will Muschamp won more games in his first three seasons than any head coach in South Carolina history. He would not have done that without the young quarterback who skipped his senior year of high school to play for the Gamecocks.

Bentley took over the team as a 17-year-old freshman and won his first three games, salvaging what looked like another disappointing season and leading the Gamecocks to a bowl game in Muschamp’s first season.

A year later, he led South Carolina to a 9-4 record, winning tough road games at NC State, Missouri and Tennessee and leading the Gamecocks to a thrilling comeback win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.

In 2018, he led an offense that averaged 30 points and 425 yards a game, reminding fans of Steve Spurrier’s explosive attacks. He threw for 363 yards in a 48-44 win at Ole Miss and passed for a school-record 510 yards and five touchdowns against rival Clemson.

In just three years, Bentley threw for 7,527 yards (fourth in school history), 55 touchdowns (third) and completed 62.5 percent of his passes (second). Had he not gotten injured, he would have broken all the school passing records and likely become just the 10th quarterback in SEC history to pass for more than 10,000 yards.

But what I will remember most about Jake Bentley is the class, professionalism and leadership he demonstrated every step of the way. Always backing and praising his teammates. Setting a positive example for younger players and kids. And, at times, even lending a hand to opponents. When he consoled heartbroken Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano after South Carolina’s last-second win at Tennessee in 2017 it was one of the most inspiring acts of sportsmanship you will ever see.

When he and his team struggled, Bentley was quick to accept responsibility, understanding that as the team’s quarterback, a loss was on him, whether it was his fault or not.

After the season-opening loss to North Carolina, with his broken foot swelling and hurting, he stood before the media and answered every question and took the blame, despite the team’s all-round poor play and a fourth-quarter collapse by the defense.

“It’s really on me. I was given every opportunity by the team to go win the game and I didn’t do it,” he said.

No one on the South Carolina team was more unselfish than its starting quarterback. Even his last decision was a selfless act. Though transferring to another school may help his NFL Draft stock, Bentley also knew that returning to South Carolina could hinder the progress of the program, creating questions and controversy at the position and perhaps stunting the growth of young quarterbacks like Ryan Hilinski. 

That was Jake Bentley, always doing and saying the right thing, never giving up and fighting to the bitter end.

Though he had his ups and downs, Bentley will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in South Carolina history, and one that deserves the utmost respect for the way he played the game and represented the Garnet and Black.