By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth
CHARLOTTE — When South Carolina traveled to Oxford, Miss. on Nov. 3, the Gamecocks realized they had to crank up the offense to beat the Rebels and finish the season strong.
At 4-3, the offense had sputtered much of the season and had struggled at times, failing to produce the explosive attack everyone expected under new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and veteran quarterback Jake Bentley. With the young defense beat up and struggling, Bentley and the offense knew they had to step up.
“I think we just came in there with the mindset that has continued to last us the whole year, the mindset of we’ve got to go score some points to win this game,” Bentley said Friday as the Gamecocks prepare to face Virginia on Saturday in the Belk Bowl. “The guys just came out and just understood that we have to go score. I think we have taken that same mindset and just transferred it to each game after that.”
The Gamecocks rolled up 510 yards of total offense against Ole Miss, with Bentley throwing for 363 and two touchdowns. Over the final five games of the season, South Carolina topped 500 yards of offense three times, including 600-yard performances against Chattanooga and No. 2 Clemson.
Starting with a come-from-behind win over Tennessee on Oct. 27, the Gamecocks surpassed 375 yards of total offense each week in going 4-2 over its final six games. They averaged 33 points and 440 total yards and topped 500 yards five times over the 7-5 campaign.
“I think definitely after the Tennessee game, we figured out our potential and we started playing with a whole lot more tempo. And that makes it tough on the defense,” center Donell Stanley said. “Once we started to play fast, it was pretty hard to stop us.”
South Carolina is looking to continue that pace Saturday against a Virginia team with a strong defense. The Cavaliers held opponents to 21 points and 337 yards per game in finishing 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the ACC.
“We are pretty confident,” said wide receiver Bryan Edwards, who had 809 yards receiving and seven touchdowns during the regular season. “We had a great week of practice. We have done some things in these past few weeks so we just got to come out there and put a polished product on the field. I feel pretty confident in our game plan and what we have in store.”
With the return of Edwards and Deebo Samuel, a full stable of running backs and Bentley under center, South Carolina was expected to have an explosive offense this season. But after the 557-yard, 49-15 season-opening win over Coastal Carolina, the offense sputtered and was inconsistent.
The Gamecocks totaled just 336 yards in a loss to Georgia. Then, after a 534-yard outing in a win at Vanderbilt, they were held to just 321 yards in a loss to Kentucky. Backup quarterback Michael Scarnecchia led them to 377 yards in a thrilling, come-from-behind win over Missouri, but they managed just 299 total yards in a home loss to Texas A&M.
The following week, they trailed Tennessee 21-9 before erupting for 18 second-half points in a 27-24 win. That’s when the new up-tempo offense started to take off.
“Rome wasn’t built in one day,” Edwards said. “We had B-Mac coming in [and] that was kinda a little new for us and we just had to smooth all the edges out and just get into our groove and that’s what I think we did.”
After the offensive explosion against Ole Miss, the Gamecocks compiled 386 yards in a heartbreaking 35-31 loss at Florida. The offense then put up back-to-back 600-yard performances against Chattanooga and Clemson.
The confidence of the offense was soaring as the Gamecocks headed to Death Valley to take on rival Clemson.
“No one on the offense was timid or scared or thinking we couldn’t do it,” said Bentley, who threw for a school-record 510 yards and five touchdowns against the No. 2 defense in the country. “Everybody had the mindset going into that game that no one can stop us. We went up there and played well and when you look at the tape, there were a lot of things we didn’t do well and we could have executed even better and had a better chance to win.”
Though the 56-35 loss to Clemson still stings, the Gamecock offense knew then it could score against any team in the country.
“It’s the mental preparation and understanding that mindset that we have to go score some points,” Bentley said. “That never-scared mentality. No matter who we go up against, we want to play well and play to the best of our abilities. I think understanding that mindset is going to carry over and help us.”
Though the Gamecocks will be without Samuel on Saturday, Bentley and Edwards are confident the offense can continue to produce big plays and big numbers with a host of receivers. Young players like Shi Smith and freshman Josh Vann are expected to step up, while there should also be plenty of opportunities for tight ends like K.C. Crosby, Kiel Pollard and Jacob August.
“I think they are always ready even when Deebo was here,” Edwards said. “We started rotating a little bit more so they have seen more snaps. Josh and Chavis [Dawkins] have both scored touchdowns this year so they are going to be ready for the moment.”
“We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football who are going to be coming in,” Bentley said. “Bryan, I think he has continued to improve and he’s a guy we need to play well tomorrow. I think Shi is going to take on a bigger role as well, and then bringing in Josh and Kiel and K.C., it’s really going to be a group effort.
“Whoever is in is expected to make some plays and help our team.”