South Carolina led UMass 27-7, but a busted play gave the Minutemen an inexcusable 74-yard one-play touchdown. No lead appeared safe, so the Gamecocks let new quarterback Jake Bentley throw the ball downfield and try to get something going.
It was the right idea.
They got back to it, after it was nearly too late.
The Gamecocks played conservatively after UMass cut the game to 27-14, trying to lean on their defense and run out the win. Of USC’s seven possessions after the fluke touchdown, six began with a run; a couple worked, many didn’t as the Gamecocks managed one touchdown in the second half and UMass made it a six-point game with 4:20 to go.
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That was when offensive coordinator Kurt Roper let Bentley do what he does best, and it started with a scramble for 6 yards. Then the freshman found Deebo Samuel for 25 yards, got two pass interference penalties and a huge third-down rush from Rico Dowdle to get to victory formation.
“Considering the time on the clock, the discussion was, ‘Milk it or win it?,’ coach Will Muschamp said. “And our discussion was go win the game.”
They tried to do it sooner and it didn’t work. Bentley dialed two completions after the 74-yarder, but USC went back to the run (which featured a Dowdle 12-yard scamper). The next six drives began with runs.
The Gamecocks were three-and-out, touchdown, four-and-out, four-and-out (Samuel fumbled), three-and-out and the final drive. UMass was camped for the run and Bentley, who had thrown two textbook fades for touchdowns, was spending most of his time handing off.
“We had a counter that we felt really good about, on second-and-4. We ended up punting on that drive. They stunted into it,” Muschamp explained. “There it was third-and-3, we had not brought Brandon (McIlwain) back on the counter, back across the formation from an overloaded look. They rocked back on it and hit us on the play.”
McIlwain was dropped twice on scrambles, once on fourth-and-1. The Gamecocks continue to have issues with run-blocking, and McIlwain’s presence in the game keyed UMass to a quarterback keeper.
It seemed scripted that the Gamecocks would play it safe, for a lot of reasons. Bentley is a freshman in his first start, they don’t want to give up on McIlwain, it’s the way Muschamp prefers to win games. And the first-down calls sometimes begat second-down first downs.
Yet, Bentley is in the game to throw downfield. He had nine incompletions but four were drops. It’s true the Gamecocks haven’t had a 20-point lead to protect in quite some time but when they got it – even when it was immediately cut to 13 – they could have kept pushing down the gas.
Other opponents might not be so forgiving.
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