South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley has a history of knee injuries. He took a pounding with a pair of sacks and numerous hits in the first half of Saturday’s loss to Clemson.
Coming out of the break, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp had seen enough.
“He’s fine,” Muschamp said. “There’s no structural damage. He had a hard time pushing off of it. Coming out of halftime, I did not feel good. He wanted to go. I did not feel good about putting him back in the game.”
So the coach turned to someone who’s never been too far out of mind despite a rocky season.
Muschamp praised quarterback Brandon McIlwain in the weeks since Bentley took South Carolina’s starting job and after a short-yardage, McIlwain package seemed to fall out of favor. That was a few weeks ago, but given his shot, McIlwain showed a little spark.
“That’s impressive,” tight end Hayden Hurst said. “He kind of got the starter role taken away from him. Didn’t duck his head. Came out there and fought. Took us down the field and scored. I respect that. I respect that a lot.”
The Gamecocks scored their only points with McIlwain at the helm. He led a 75-yard scoring drive that started with a 19-yard connection with Hurst. At one point early in the fourth quarter, he either ran or passed on 10 consecutive plays before giving way to senior Perry Orth on the game’s final drive.
McIlwain finished 6 for 11 for 33 yards, and ran for 13 yards on five carries.
“I think Brandon came in and did a really good job with the cards that were dealt to him,” guard Zack Bailey said. “He came in when we were down, so he did what he could with the ball.”
McIlwain took the starting job after two weeks at the start of the season and held it for three games. He gave way to Perry Orth for one game, and then had a pair of games as a short-yardage runner.
While many Gamecocks said they wanted to stew on the loss to Clemson, offensive tackle Mason Zandi seemed to have attention more forward looking after the game ended.
Coming off the field, he repeated “Let’s go win a bowl game” several times.
The players said coaches had already started talking to them about what the coming bowl practices could mean. Because the team missed a bowl in 2015 and a large junior college contingent, much of the roster hasn’t been through bowl prep.
A few players said they didn’t know what to expect, and things could be different with a new regime.
“Our coach has been stressing a lot, T-Rob, he’s been telling us, this is like getting ready for next year,” safety D.J. Smith said. “Obviously, we’ve got the bowl game, but 15 extra practices is a lot, could do a lot for us.”
How those 15 bowl practices get distributed will be a little tricky. The start of December has the road block of finals and some other things on the calendar, and the Gamecocks likely won’t learn their bowl fate until next Sunday.
Muschamp has said he wants a lot of the practices to focus on development, but his team can use something else as well in the coming days.
“Our guys need a little time off,” Muschamp said. “Two lifts next week, and then we start exams. Won’t have anything football-wise as far as that’s concerned. Determine when we start bowl practices when we play the game. We’ll have a team meeting (Sunday).
“Coaches will be out recruiting.”