South Carolina knew Tennessee couldn’t stop the run so it wisely ran the ball. It also knew if it was going to try and throw the ball – Jake Bentley’s specialty – it would have to be quick-strike passes to avoid the Volunteers’ nasty pass rush.
It was hit-and-miss for three quarters. The run worked well, but the Gamecocks began to ignore it, especially after Rico Dowdle was shaken up. The pass could work if USC could get protection.
It came down to a choice, and it was a difficult one. Dowdle was out. The Gamecocks tried to throw the ball while up three points and Bentley was put on his back. But Mark King’s second interception of the game gave USC the ball with 3:42 to go, and the choice rose again.
Run or pass?
USC ran twice for short gain. On third down, just as he did on a touchdown strike to K.C. Crosby, Bentley hung in as the pass-rush closed. Hayden Hurst, who hadn’t caught a ball all game and cost the Gamecocks a touchdown with a holding call, was there on a crossing pattern.
“We just had some things we’re still working through, that’s where we are right now,” coach Will Muschamp said. “We ran the ball, for the most part, pretty well through most of the night. I thought Jake was accurate in some tight man-to-man throws he made.”
USC was able to get enough time off the clock late to remove any doubt and pulled off its biggest win in … well, a long time. It kept the Gamecocks in the search for bowl eligibility and showed Kurt Roper isn’t chained to a 50-50 playcalling balance – with 49 runs and 21 passes, that was exactly how USC should have attacked a Vols defense that could not stop the run.
Dowdle had the best single game for any USC running back this year, Bentley continued to show that he might be Steve Taneyhill 25 years later and Deebo Samuel might be the best slot receiver in the SEC. There are still problems to solve, kinks to work out – but the Gamecocks have won two straight and are feeling like they can conquer the world.
It was still difficult to make the kinds of decisions that can define a game – or a tenure – but Muschamp (or Roper, since Muschamp says he’s never called a play) made the right ones. They elected to make Tennessee try to drive the length of the field and burn its final timeout and it came through.
The Gamecocks’ skill players are developing, as USC hoped they would. There’s still a long way to go.
Although they can enjoy this one for a little while.
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