For any offense in college football, the act of throwing deep is a mix of scheme, skill and opportunity. To threaten a defense with those sort of passes, there have to be the right routes called, the defense playing in a way that makes those routes the right reads, the ability to make the play on both ends and and often a passer with enough aggression to put the ball in some tight spots.
Granted it was against UMass, but new South Carolina starter Jake Bentley appears to have some of that last one.
A breakdown of Bentley’s first start showed a passing chart that alternated between the kind of screen-heavy approach common in modern offenses and much more ambitious throws. This wasn’t a performance built on mid-range passes.
Fourteen of Bentley’s 26 pass attempts were thrown behind the line of scrimmage. Nine others went at least 13 yards , including five of 25 yards or longer.
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Throw into tight window:
That’s pretty bold for a young player. More than that, he wasn’t throwing to receivers that got lost in coverage. On at least two of those throws, both touchdowns, he saw players matched up one-on-one and put the ball in spots where his receivers could make plays.
Letting Edwards make a play:
There were a few rough spots, some screens not placed particularly well and what looked like a miscommunication with a receiver that had a deep pass going to open grass. But he also had five passes that qualify as dropped to some degree, and showed the ability to fire a few darts when the play broke down.
The most subtle of them was scramble to start the Gamecocks’ last drive, when he escaped the pocket and directed receiver Deebo Samuel to lay a vital block that turned a short gain into an intermediate one.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp spoke after the game about how the team had to choose whether to milk clock or go for the jugular on the team’s final drive. That’s because the Gamecocks had spent most of the second half keeping things on the ground.
They faced four third downs, ran when they needed 4 yards or less and passed when the needed 6 or more. Outside the final drive when they let things loose, they only ran on first down and didn’t throw on anything shorter than second and 9.
It’s fair to say that wasn’t so productive, as only one of those drives went farther than 24 yards (a five-play 38-yard touchdown drive after a turnover) until going 68 yards to ice the game.
The final drive had five pass calls in the first six plays, including a second-and-7 where Samuel gave a look of blocking and then shot upfield past a surprised defense.
Screen blocker streak
South Carolina’s biggest defensive miscue came when a player didn’t make a call in four-deep coverage and a corner tried to pass his receiver off to a safety already matched on a receiver running a short route. That yielded a 74-yard score.
The other three times USC gave up touchdowns, UMass had to drive. Those three possessions featured four plays longer than 12 yards out of 35 total plays. There was at least one bad penalty that helped, but what really seemed to irk Muschamp was misplaying situations the staff prepared them for.
Most notable was the Minutemen’s final score. Tight end Adam Breneman ran a wheel route, slipping outside a receiver lined up tight. A safety was supposed to pick him up, and didn’t despite the team working that exact situation in what the coach called a “high red zone” situation: third and 17 on the 18-yard line.
Stretching the defense
UMass liked to keep its offensive personnel the same, but deploy a range of formations to cause problems. That often meant the Gamecocks’ three-linebacker group having to match with spread formations and negotiate spots with linebackers matched on quicker, smaller receivers.
This usually meant linebacker Larenz Bryant, who was playing his first game after missing half the season with injury, working out in space. He was targeted at least twice, but didn’t appear to get picked on too badly.
With Bentley taking control of the offense, the USC staff still found a place for former starter Brandon McIlwain. The mobile true freshman played in short-yardage situations, something offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has used in the past.
McIlwain took seven snaps, and carried the ball on five. Every time he ran, it was a quarterback counter, a play that gets him running behind a guard and tight end coming across the formation. The other two plays were basic inside zone handoffs to David Williams for scores.
McIlwain’s carries included three runs that could be called successful, and a pair where he was stopped in short yardage. Both featured a missed block and looked like UMass blitzed into them.
It’s a similar look to one Roper used for reserve Brandon Connette at Duke in 2013 after starter Anthony Boone came back from an injury. Connette averaged five carries a game after Boone came back, and scored eight touchdowns in eight games.
▪ Muschamp called UMass a “junk defense” for the way they tried to overload and create big plays at the risk of giving them up. The Minutemen rushed five on more than half of USC’s pass attempts, often deploying them in creative ways and getting pressure often.
▪ The Gamecocks found themselves with both corners lined up on the same side of the field, a relative rarity this season.
▪ Freshman runner Rico Dowdle’s game-clinching run was notable because he was met in the backfield when a lineman got pushed back, but managed to make something out of it, beating the defense to the edge.
▪ The Gamecocks had some nice diversity on the ground. They ran gap blocking on 13 of 38 plays (nine counter plays, four power), 17 zone plays, four with a twist, plus four sweeps and a couple receiver sweeps. Williams said the team got more comfortable repping all those plays during the bye week.
▪ Tight end Kiel Pollard is seeing more playing time.
▪ Reserve linebackers T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Pittman also got a few series in, as starting linebacker Jonathan Walton was sidelined.