Jake Bentley. Rico Dowdle. Bryan Edwards.
And that’s just the freshmen. The sophomores aren’t bad either when you throw in Deebo Samuel and Hayden Hurst and K.C. Crosby and Zack Bailey.
South Carolina’s offensive youngsters not only changed the complexion of the Gamecocks’ 2016 season on Saturday night, but they might have changed the trajectory of the Will Muschamp era on top of that.
The defense did its part, too. The combined effort added up to a 24-21 victory over No. 18 Tennessee in front of 78,696 fans in Williams-Brice Stadium. The win erased a lot of bad recent history (first win over the Vols since 2012, first win over an SEC team not named Vanderbilt since beating Florida near the end of the 2014 season, first win over a ranked team since beating No. 6 Georgia near the beginning of the 2014 season), but the more important impact is on the future.
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Suddenly, a bowl game looks not only possible, but –brace yourself a bit here – likely. The Gamecocks (4-4 overall, 2-4 SEC) need two more wins to get to the all-important six, and they likely will be favored against Missouri and Western Carolina.
“We are very pleased with our guys’ effort and our guys’ buy-in,” coach Will Muschamp said. “You get to 2-4 and you’re getting beat up left and right. For our guys to continue to fight says a lot about the players we have on our team but also says a lot about our staff. Our staff has stuck together. We have a very good coaching staff here. These guys do a fantastic job.”
Muschamp was fired after four years at Florida because he never got his offense figured out. Bentley, Dowdle, Edwards, etc., look to be on their way to figuring things out.
“We put them on the field and we expect them to play at a high level. In order to win in our league, you have to,” Muschamp said. “Only on Sunday, as we are having dinner do we say, ‘You know what? These guys are freshmen.’ But on game day and in our preparation, that’s not an excuse. That’s the situation we are in.”
It doesn’t seem like such a bad situation after Saturday night.
Bentley, making his second career start and first against an SEC team, got sacked six times but didn’t flinch. He finished 15-of-20 for 167 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers.
“I thought he did a nice job,” Muschamp said. “He was accurate with the ball, and we had some guys makes some plays, too. There’s no question that in that environment, it says a lot about the young man and his preparation and what he puts into it.”
Dowdle, also making his second career start against the Volunteers, had a career-high 127 yards on 27 carries. It was the most by a Gamecock this season.
Edwards had a 17-yard touchdown catch with 12:46 left in the second quarter to put South Carolina ahead 14-7 and made a great leaping catch to convert a critical third down with less than six minutes left in the game. He finished with four catches for 41 yards.
The sophomores pitched in with Samuel’s eight catches for 83 yards (“Deebo played fantastic. He’s really an electric guy,” Muschamp said.), Hurst’s lone catch that covered 9 yards to convert a fourth quarter third-and-7, and Crosby’s 35-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
“I’m glad we’ve got the guys we’ve got,” Muschamp said.
Sure, some of their baby fat showed. For instance, after Crosby’s touchdown, he was flagged for a 15-yard celebration penalty for an overly exuberant end zone dance.
“I am disappointed in that, but like I told one of the coaches on the headset who was complaining, ‘Hell, we have never been in this position,’ ” Muschamp said. “But we plan on being here a lot.”