CHARLOTTE — With South Carolina trailing 24-20 with about two minutes left in the game Saturday, Jake Bentley had wide receiver Shi Smith wide open in the end zone.
He overthrew him, and then threw his second fourth-quarter interception on the next play as North Carolina held on for the upset win at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
It will take Bentley a long time to get over the missed throw to Smith.
“That’s probably never going to go away,” he said after the game. “That’s something I hit all the time at practice. He was open and I just have to throw it in there.”
Expected to have a big year in his senior season, Bentley, a four-year starter, struggled in the season opener. He completed just 16 of 30 passes for 142 yards and two interceptions as the Gamecocks managed just 270 yards of total offense against a rebuilding North Carolina team that finished 2-9 last season.
Though South Carolina struggled in nearly every phase of the game — the defense gave up 483 yards of total offense and blew a 20-9 lead — Bentley took full blame for the loss.
“I was given every opportunity by the team to go win the game and I didn’t do it, so it hurts a lot,” he said. “First and foremost, I have to dig deep into myself and find out what I can do better before I start to try to help others, and I will, for sure. It starts with me.”
Bentley, who threw for 3,171 yards and 27 touchdowns last season, gave South Carolina a 20-9 lead with a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Markway with 5:10 remaining in the third quarter. But North Carolina came storming back with long touchdown drives to take a 24-20 lead.
Bentley then had three opportunities to rally the Gamecocks. With about eight minutes remaining, he threw an incomplete pass intended for Smith and then got sacked on third down. They got the ball back with 4:22 remaining and got a big break on a pass-interference penalty on third down. But he missed Bryan Edwards on second down and threw an interception on third down.
South Carolina got the ball back again with 2:19 remaining but once again could not score. They started the drive at the North Carolina 37 after a 38-yard punt return by Edwards and moved to the 26 after an 11-yard completion to Josh Vann. But Bentley missed Smith in the end zone and then threw another interception on second down.
South Carolina got the ball back at the North Carolina 47 with 11 seconds remaining but Bentley was sacked on the final play of the game.
Bentley took the blame for the offensive miscues late in the game.
“Missing throws, especially there late,” he said. “We should have won the game three or four times. I just have to hit ‘em. It sucks, but I just have to get better.”
Bentley said he was confident when he got the ball back on the final drive.
“Go win. That’s really what I was thinking about and I was confident and ready to get back out there and go win,” he said. “Bryan had a great return. We were given a opportunity and I just didn’t execute well enough to go win the game.”
Bentley was under duress much of the game as the offensive line struggled to contain North Carolina’s pass rush, especially in the second half. Bentley said there were some miscommunications on the line, which features two new, young starters in Hank Manos at center and Eric Douglas at right guard.
“They were getting creative with what they did, just mixing it up and we have to be able to communicate better,” he said. “That starts with me too, just getting everybody on the same page and get everything picked up.”
Bentley said he didn’t think the offense was too conservative in the second half. The Gamecocks ran the ball effectively in the first half, with Tavien Feaster giving them a 10-3 lead with a 34-yard touchdown run. But they couldn’t run the ball or throw it in the second half.
“I think any play that we run should be a successful play. We just have to execute better,” he said.
Bentley was surprised by his team’s poor performance. The Gamecocks were expected to have their best team under fourth-year head coach Will Muschamp, but are now 0-1 with the toughest schedule in the country still ahead.
“I think any time you lose, it’s very surprising,” he said. “You go into a game with full confidence that you have the right game plan and the best players on the field, and we still believe that. It’s really on me.”
The challenge now is too clean up a bevy of mistakes that cost the Gamecocks in their season opener and rally against Charleston Southern before No. 2 Alabama comes to Columbia Sept. 14.
“There are still a lot of games to be played. I know it’s a cliche, but we have to just learn from this and really dig deep and find out what we can all do better, starting with me,” he said. “I have to play better and just be ready for next week.”